Archive for Friday, July 20, 2007

Healthier cafeteria foods for kids a market challenge

July 20, 2007

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Robin Lightfoot, of Garden City, Kan., listens to Kathy Cheop as she samples hummus at the Wild Garden booth at the School Nutrition Association annual meeting this week in Chicago. The push for healthy options has food companies scurrying to find creative, healthy alternatives like single-serve portions of hummus that could become kid-friendly favorites.

Robin Lightfoot, of Garden City, Kan., listens to Kathy Cheop as she samples hummus at the Wild Garden booth at the School Nutrition Association annual meeting this week in Chicago. The push for healthy options has food companies scurrying to find creative, healthy alternatives like single-serve portions of hummus that could become kid-friendly favorites.

— Mark Smith is convinced he can turn a generation of junk-food eaters into die-hard devotees of what he calls "the salsa of this decade."

The dynamo treat? Single-serve portions of hummus, which may be coming to a school cafeteria near you.

As the federal government prepares to raise standards for food served in schools, vendors like Smith are rolling out healthier versions of lunchroom favorites. Now there are whole-grain pizzas and baked chicken nuggets, along with new offerings like hummus. It's all part of an uphill - and so far losing - battle to slow rising obesity rates.

Government rules, which limit fat and require certain levels of vitamins and protein, are about to get tougher. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the national school lunch and breakfast programs, will announce changes by the end of the year.

But getting kids to choose broccoli florets over a fries-and-soda combo is a tall order. A recent Associated Press review of school nutrition studies found that classes on healthy foods and menu changes in the lunchroom have had little effect in altering generally poor eating habits of U.S. youths.

"I've witnessed kids who have a choice of fresh foods and vegetables and other choices, and they choose the other choices, because that's what kids do," said Dr. Reginald Washington, of Denver, who is on a committee on childhood obesity for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Kids agree. Sean McCarney, a 12-year-old from North Huntington, Pa., says his peers are "programmed to like fried stuff, so it's hard for them to change over."

Food suppliers know that, and they are scurrying to find options that could become lunchroom favorites.

While hawking his hummus and pita chips at this week's School Nutrition Association annual meeting in Chicago, Smith rattled off the health benefits of the garbanzo bean-based dip.

"It tastes really good," he added. But it may not be for everyone, especially young eaters, said the vice president of sales for Ziyad Brothers Importing of Cicero, Ill.

"The name hummus scares them a little bit," he said.

Perdue Farms Inc. can attest to the challenge of developing healthy but still appealing options. When the company tested chicken nuggets with whole-grain breading two years ago, "it came out looking like baked bugs," said Doylene Jones, national sales manager for the company's school food service.

"It doesn't do you any good to make something if the kids are going to throw it in the trash can," she said.

Now the Salisbury, Md., company's most popular school sellers include drumsticks and spicy breaded chicken bites with a partial whole-grain breading that are baked in cafeterias.

To tempt taste buds, many schools have sampling events for students.

Connie Mueller, a food service director from Bloomington, Ill., has used taste-testing to OK a whole-wheat pizza but nix breaded baked fish. Vegetables often have the most difficult time getting kid approval.

"Sometimes they have to see it, they have to see other people eating it," she said. "Sometimes it's texture, sometimes it's smell."

Some nutrition experts contend that regardless of changes made to items like pizza and chicken nuggets, those choices still aren't the best.

Washington, the pediatrics specialist, is among those who hope schools ditch the bad-food options entirely so children are forced to choose from healthy-only alternatives for at least one meal each day.

Still, he says, "schools shouldn't be given total responsibility" for changing bad eating habits.

And it's a struggle for school systems to buy fresh, wholesome food on tiny budgets.

"It's our jobs as adults to teach children how to eat," said Janey Thorton, president of the School Nutrition Association. "We're not going to turn this around overnight. We have to change parents, too. It's going to take everybody."

Comments

formerksteacher 7 years, 9 months ago

I don't suppose it ever occured to you the cost of fresh fruits, veggies, and the like might be quite high AND that a good percentage of kids would STILL not eat it? The problem isn't the cooks; the problem is the available resources. It's fairly difficult to get such large quantities of good quality food consistently. The canned stuff is, unfortunately, going to be much more reliable. Besides - kids are just plain picky, and they ALL have different tastes. I do agree the kids eat gross food at school, I'm just not sure how to solve that problem. But I DON'T think we can afford the kind of food you suggest ALL the time, even though it sounds good, and I DON'T think new cooks would chef up anything better given the same ingredients schools already use. By the way - the kids are almost given the choice of some fresh fruit or veggies at each meal; it just isn't ALL homecooked like we'd like.

manyblessings 7 years, 9 months ago

Quit taking everyone's tax dollars for school lunch programs so they can afford to pack their own lunches. If parents want their kids to eat healthy they can make them something healthy to eat at home and send it along. If parents don't care then it won't matter anyway since they are eating junk at home. It isn't the government's responsibility to control our children's diets. Cafeteria foods, no matter how "healthy" are going to have to be foods that have a lot of preservatives and are over processed.

Confrontation 7 years, 9 months ago

manyblessings: By your posting name, I assume that you've never had to go without a meal. For many children who live in poverty, this school meal may be their only meal. That's why towns offer free lunches during the summers. They know that these children need to eat something. Unlike many other kids today, those in poverty do not prefer to starve themselves to fit into the latests fashion. They starve because there's no money. Cutting school lunches is not only an idea of an idiot, but it's also not going to provide enough tax savings to purchase enough food at home. No, food stamps aren't enough. Definitley not enough to pay for fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean meats.

hellolawrence 7 years, 9 months ago

Manyblessings: you obviously don't know the reality of schools today. And you are too oblivious to your republican money hungry way of living to realize that some kids have parents who simply don't feed their kids. For some kids, school lunches are the only food they get a day. Open your eyes to what is happening. You are one of the enablers. You probably don't believe global warming exists either.

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