FOOD WISE: Liberty Hill school cafeterias serving healthy choices

By CHEF RENEE MORGAN

The food service staff at Bill Burden Elementary School spoke to Chef Renee (right) during National School Lunch Week last week about the healthy choices students are making at school. From left are Mary Sheffield, Kelsy Robertson, Linda Hopkins, Christie Cline and Xavier Garcia. (Photo by Kathy Canady)

Anyone who knows me, knows how passionate I am about child nutrition. In fact, anyone who’s ever met me too, I imagine, since I hardly ever shut my pie hole about it. It’s why I do what I do in my everyday work and why that work is so important to me.

I actually started researching health on a nutritional level about 10 years ago because I was looking for answers and help for some of my own health issues. I just wanted to feel better. But what I discovered along the way was how important it is to start our kids out the right way from the get-go.

As with all areas of life, it is so much easier to do things right from the very beginning and all along, than to try to undo poor choices later. A child who has never tasted soda, for example; doesn’t have to detox from it later, and I can tell you from personal experience…Diet Coke, she is a cruel mistress. If I had never tasted it in the first place, I wouldn’t have had to deal with the headaches, cravings and general, ahem, grumpiness associated with withdrawal.

But even more importantly, we have to look at how nutrition or the lack thereof affects our children’s growth, ability to learn, general health and development.

Let’s face it, children are no different than us. If we want to help them avoid childhood obesity and other weight-related diseases like diabetes, we must provide them with more play that encourages exercise and movement and more nutritionally sound food choices.

And don’t even get me started on how all of the extra hormones, antibiotics, chemicals and dyes in processed foods have contributed to increased incidence of autism, allergies, hormonal imbalances, reaching puberty years earlier than they should and a whole host of other problems. Let’s just not go there!

Having said all that, you’ll understand why I’m so excited to talk to you about this week’s topic. National School Lunch Week was Oct. 15-19, so I thought it would be a great time to check in with the Liberty Hill ISD Nutrition Department.

Rumor had it that the US Department of Agriculture had made some important changes in the nutritional requirements for school lunches, and I wanted to find out more. Last week, I sat down with Child Nutrition Services General Manager Mary Sheffield to get the low-down. I caught up with her at Bill Burden Elementary as she made her rounds. While there, I had the great pleasure of meeting the school’s cafeteria team.

Let’s face it, one the reasons many of us love living in Liberty Hill is because our schools are second to none. Our school cafeterias are no exception. As I toured the immaculate kitchen and talked with each of them about their area of specialty and the food they were preparing, I was immediately impressed by how much these folks really care about our children. They talked enthusiastically about the dishes they were working on and how they each encourage children that come through the line to try food they are normally reluctant about. It warmed my heart to see the personal investment these professionals are making in our children everyday.

As Ms. Sheffield and I sat down to talk, I noticed all the bright and cheerful posters around the cafeteria reminding children to make good food choices. I don’t know about you, but it sure is a much different atmosphere than the cafeteria I spent my childhood in.

Ms. Sheffield, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Science and Nutrition from Texas A&M University and has many years of experience in school and health care kitchens, explained some of the changes mandated by the USDA.

“In 2010, the USDA developed the Healthy Hunger Free Act, but the final guidelines were put into effect this year,” she said. “Fortunately, we had already begun making many of these changes earlier than required, so it was just a matter polishing things up.”

What exactly is the Healthy Hungry Free Act? According to the handout she gave me, the act “updates the meal patterns and nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs to align them with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Great! What does that mean? In a nutshell, it requires schools to increase their offerings of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fat-free/low-fat milk. It also requires the reduction of sodium, saturated fat and trans fat.

Maybe you’ve noticed those menus the kids bring home in their backpacks. I usually post it on the refrigerator so I can use it to ask them about their day. You know how they do ya. You ask them how was school? Fine. What did you learn? I dunno. What did you eat for lunch? I dunno. This way, at least I can ask them, did you have chicken nuggets or cheese quesadilla?

Mary explained some of the criteria Sodexo, which is the contractor partnering with the LHISD to provide nutritional services at the schools, has for coming up with menus. Besides the USDA requirements, they also try to provide variety to keep things interesting. At elementary schools, there is a vegetarian offering, three hot entrees and some sort of cold item, like a sandwich. Additionally, they make sure to offer something from each food group: meat and poultry, fruit, vegetable, milk and dairy, and grains, and kids are required to choose at least a half cup of some combination of fruit and veggies. At the Junior High and High School levels, things get even more interesting, with choices such as rotating favorites, which includes Mexican food, burgers and pizza. There is something offered for everyone.

According to Sheffield, Sodexo and the LHISD view nutrition as more than just a school lunch. It’s also an educational opportunity. Those posters I told you about? They encourage the kids to choose all kinds of healthier options, like activities. Teachers cover nutrition topics in class with books and movies on the subject. All of these elements work in tandem to help tackle childhood obesity.

Ms. Sheffield says small changes make a big difference. For example, when serving pizza, changing to a whole wheat crust and using low-fat cheese are easy swaps that transform pizza into a nutritional hero. I know you may be thinking kids won’t like how these healthier ingredients taste, but they have thought of everything. Sodexo has conducted taste tests, with healthier options going toe-to-toe with the regular versions at various schools across the country to get kids’ opinions. Overwhelmingly, students liked the healthier options.

Sodexo has also appointed a kid chef, a young 12-year-old named Remy to be the student ambassador. “Chef” Remy is from Oklahoma and videos featuring her demonstrating recipes and healthy food ideas is featured on various school websites. What a great way to get kids comfortable making things in the kitchen and making smart food decisions…by seeing another kid doing it.

I asked Ms. Sheffield about any nutrition ideas or events specific to LHISD. A couple of things going on include the A-Z Salad Bar and the Future Chef Competition. In the A-Z Salad Bar, students spend a week breaking down information about fruits and vegetables and identify salad items that are centered around each letter of the alphabet. The 4th Annual Future Chefs Competition takes place in the spring and is open to third through sixth graders. The challenge is to prepare a healthy-after-school snack. The finalists prepare their dish on-site and are judged according to child-friendly prep and health consciousness.

After talking with Ms. Sheffield, I can be all up in my grandboys’ business even more. Now, when the kids come home, I can ask them what fruit or veggie they tried, too, since I know they have to put it on their plates. Ha!

I love the effort our schools and cafeteria workers are putting into making sure our kids get off to a good start in life. Hey, here’s an idea…next time you’re over at the school, thank a cafeteria worker.

Chef Reneé is a classically trained, award-winning chef and columnist. She earned a culinary degree at the famous Le Cordon Bleu, as well as a bachelor of music degree from Hardin-Simmons University. She has an extensive background in events planning and management. Reneé lives in Liberty Hill.