My oldest son is a kindergartner and his favorite time of day at school is lunch. He loves buying lunch, and every day he comes home so excited to fill me in on what that day's menu held. As a mom, I try to prepare healthy, delicious meals for my children for breakfast and dinner, but is what my son eating at school healthy as well?
There has been so much media attention on what schools are serving on the lunch line recently, with shows such as Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, that Patch decided to take a look at the district's school lunch program and get the community's opinion.
In recent years, school lunch programs have been scrutinized more than ever because our kids are bigger than ever. According to the USDA, one in three children is overweight. Obesity is a serious health concern for children and adolescents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that, during their youth, obese children are more likely to have risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes.
According to the Three Village district website, all Three Village school lunches include five meal components to meet the nutritional needs of its students. The students must take at least three components to complete a meal. Whole grain items are found throughout the menus, salad platters are available during the week and 1% milk is offered at all grade levels.
The Three Village lunch program has been making changes on the menu in the past few years, and last year, the New York State Office of General Services even recognized the district for its school lunch program by naming it a Grand Prize winner of the 2010 Best Practices Award.
"The Three Village Child Nutrition Program has been gradually implementing changes to school meals over the past two years," said Jean Ecker, director of child nutrition. "We will be fully in compliance with new guidelines that the USDA has proposed before the deadline for implementation. We are offering more green leafy and orange vegetables, as well as legumes, on the menu.
"Most of the grain items offered at the elementary level are whole grain products, and we are incorporating the same healthier choices at the secondary levels as well. We are working toward meeting the US Healthier Challenge guidelines in the elementary buildings, which is more restrictive and has a healthier menu than the new federal guidelines will be."
Most of the parents interviewed applaud the district for including healthy choices on our lunch menu, and many commented on how they appreciate that the soda vending machines were taken out of all the schools in the past few years. Dana Powell, a mom of four children from East Setauket, said she is pleased that the district has developed a healthy yet diverse menu.
"On days that my children don't like the hot lunch option, I recommend that they get the turkey sandwich on whole wheat," Powell said. "If they prefer the bagel, I suggest that they also ask for the yogurt and/or cheese stick so that they're getting some protein along with the carbs."
Her son James, a fifth grader at Minnesauke Elementary School, said he had a few favorites on the lunch menu, and he even had some suggestions for the child nutrition department.
"I think that everyone's favorite school lunch is definitely pizza on Fridays," he said. "I love the chicken nuggets on Mondays and rice is always great. Some of the healthier options I like is apples and pears. I think that the most popular drink is chocolate milk and the best dessert is either the cookies 'n cream ice cream or the ice cream sandwich. There used to be chocolate chip cookies, and they were great, but they're not offered anymore. I think they should bring back the chocolate chip cookies."
Even with all of the changes the district has made, not everyone in the community, though, believes that the schools are providing our children with quality lunches.
"I'm disappointed that our district hasn't embraced the national movement to get kids eating healthier, fresher, local, better lunches," said Andrea Mills, a mother and teacher in the community. "As a family, we cope by packing nutritious, good-tasting lunches from home. My younger son once tried a school lunch and was pretty impressed with how awful it was, which, really comes as no surprise."
Ecker said that the district is working to get away from canned produce and has moved to frozen and fresh vegetables when available. When asked about the use of local produce in the school's menu, she said, "I assure you that our distributor purchases produce from local farms whenever the produce is in season and available."
She added that one of the most difficult challenges with the school lunch program occurs on the lunch line itself. It is up to the child to choose three out of the five options being offered, and many times the fruit or the vegetables are not being chosen. Ecker shared that, in order for the children to choose the healthy options at lunch, such as the carrot sticks that are provided daily, they need to be eating these types of foods at home, too.
So how do we parents teach our children the right choices to make when they are on their own? Janelle Gallo, a certified nutritionist, insists that healthy eating habits for children come from the parents.
"Children watch parents behaviors and habits," Gallo said. "If you have parents that eat unhealthy, then their children will eat unhealthy. Parents need to teach their children healthy food choices and also eat it themselves to show children healthy behaviors."
Gallo suggests the following strategies to promote good eating habits in and out of the home:
- Explain the food guide pyramid to your kids. Discuss the different foods in each group and emphasize that vegetables and fruit portions are bigger than protein portions and sparingly are fats and oils.
- Take your kids grocery shopping and actually show them the healthy foods so they can see them and ask questions. It will help them learn more and introduce more of a variety of healthy foods.
- Involve your kids in cooking the meals. Cooking with your kids and showing them where these healthy foods come from will more likely get them to eat more of them.
- Do not reward your kids with junk food. This gives them the perception that junk food is OK and then they are asking for it more and more. Rewarding kids with fun activities to do; that will keep them moving and it's better for them, too.
Changing your family's eating habits can be a daunting task and can seem overwhelming when fast food and pre-packaged meals are easy and fast. If you want to start making changes right away, look into Stony Brook University Hospital's Department of Family Medicine's Target Fitness program for families. It is a 10-week weight management and nutrition education program taught by registered dietitians. The program is held at the hospital, but it is also willing to hold this program off-site if there is commitment by at least 12 families. Call Stony Brook University Health Connect at 631-444-4000 for more information.