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In a society of low-carb breads, whole-wheat pasta and sugar-free sweets, the traditional school lunch slowly is going stale.
Schools are turning to lighter fare, such as baked chips and reduced-fat Cheetos. Modesto schools even are phasing out canned fruit, preferring fresh pears and carrots.
Other examples of nutritious food cropping up in cafeterias:
Modesto City Schools recently introduced salad bars, brimming with fruits, vegetables and nuts.
Salida and Ceres public schools serve pizza with low-fat cheese.
Modesto City Schools and the Sylvan Union School District, in northeast Modesto, replaced white bread with whole wheat.
The rise in childhood obesity is putting pressure on schools to change their cafeteria offerings: 30 percent of California children are overweight or at risk of being overweight, according to the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.
With many children eating one, maybe two meals a day on campus, schools are an important front in the battle of the bulge. The state Legislature has eliminated soft drinks from elementary and junior highs. The ban at junior highs, or middle schools, took effect July 1.
Poor nutrition impacts education
Better school nutrition isn't just about fighting obesity.
In September, the national nonprofit group Action for Healthy Kids suggested in a report that poor nutrition, inactivity and weight problems could hurt academic achievement and possibly cost schools millions of dollars each year.
Students who don't exercise or eat well have difficulty concentrating, don't test as well and miss school more often, according to the report.
Cecilia Cobbs, vice principal at Fairview Elementary School in Modesto, said she knows that to be true: "Kids who have healthy food do better and their behavior is better than when they eat the sugary stuff."
School districts nationwide already had started turning health-conscious on their own. Two years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest school system, eliminated carbonated drinks from its 677 campuses even high schools, which are not covered by the state ban.
Last year, Turlock public school administrators directed Pepsi to sell only 12-ounce sodas at Turlock and Pitman high schools instead of 16or 20-ounce bottles.
Now that students can't get junk food on campus, does that mean they should be getting thinner, and test scores should be climbing?
"The jury is still out on what kind of impact it will have, if it will help kids to make better choices and help academics," said Stephanie Vechiarelli, project director with the UCLA School of Public Health and Community Health Sciences. She is part of a team researching issues of nutrition and physical activity in schools.
Food safety remains a concern
Modesto City Schools rolled out salad bars in September at Martone, Fairview and Burbank elementary schools. The salad bars are open three times a week.
The Modesto district wasn't the first in Stanislaus County to become a Fresh Choice of sorts. The Salida Union School District started salad bars at its four elementary schools about a year ago.
The Ceres Unified School District has what it prefers to call a "food bar," because fruits and vegetables are more prevalent than lettuce, said Peggy Clark, director of child nutrition.
The Modesto district is introducing its salad bars gradually, said Criss Atwell, director of nutrition services, because of potential hazards.
The food must be kept below 40 degrees, requiring the purchase of insulated containers at $2,000 apiece. A cafeteria employee makes sure the salad bar remains sanitary. Another employee helps pour dressing among the choices is low-fat Italian.
If successful, salad bars will be at all 23 elementary campuses in Modesto City Schools next school year, officials said.
So far, students say they like the menu addition.
"It has a lot of good stuff we can eat. It's good for us and helps us grow," said Tiffany Petree, a second-grader at Martone. She said she doesn't touch the carrots and peas, though.
Elizabeth Peña, a Martone fourth-grader, said she likes the variety. "We could just pick what we want."
Not all children are receptive, especially when favorites such as pizza and chicken nuggets tempt them, said Marilyn Frakes, food service director for the Salida Union School District.
The staff works hard to get students to try new foods, Frakes said.
Avocado was a hard sell until employees made it into guacamole. Children also were wary of gelatin cups made with canned fruit and no sugar.
"Once they try it, they like it," she said.
Salad bars sensitive to seasons
Sometimes, children don't realize that they are trying healthier alternatives. Salida children devoured brownies made with prune juice instead of sugar. They gobbled pizza with low-fat cheese.
"They love it. They didn't know the difference," Frakes said.
The salad bar is stocked with seasonal treats. During winter, when produce such as tomatoes isn't in season, interest in the salad bar wanes, Frakes said. Some salad bars already have shut down for the winter.
But Salida Elementary School wants to keep its salad bar running. Frakes said employees have been especially creative. For example, they use extra ground beef to make taco salad.
The healthier route can be more expensive. Healthful items cost more, and children can take bigger portions from salad bars. When the ventures are too costly, they fail, as organic lunches did in Palo Alto and Berkeley.
Meanwhile, Modesto City Schools is allowing students to take just two salad bar items, but the children can go back for more.
"I like that you can get seconds," Peña said.
Bee staff writer Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at 578-2385 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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