Are Austin School Lunches Edible?

In April, the Chicago Tribune reported that a publicly funded school in Chicago banned kids from bringing lunches from home and mandated that kids buy school lunches in hopes of making healthier kids. I almost fainted reading the news. As a mother who takes care to pack healthy options for her son, I would go toe-to-toe with anyone who tried to replace my son's sac of healthy, homemade food with a plastic tray of government macaroni and cheese.

In her article “Federal School Lunches Linked to Obesity,” Amy Hatch sites research by Southern Methodist University, Georgia State University and Kuwait University who examined “data on more than 13,500 elementary school students, and found that kids who eat both breakfast and lunch under the federal program weigh less than kids who only eat lunch, as well as kids who do not participate in the program at all.”

So, what’s the story with Austin’s school lunches?

I began by speaking with June Hayman who began her work as a hospital dietitian. She recalled the sadness of seeing obese adults dying from diseases like diabetes and heart disease. These are people that might not live long enough to see their grandchildren be born and cannot keep a job because their weight is a disability. Hayman found it difficult to get her adult patients to change their lives with diet alone.

“They had these lifestyle habits and ways of eating for 30 to 40 years,” Hayman said.

She decided the best way to help adults eat well was to start before they become adults. As the nutritionist for the Austin Independent School District, she is doing everything she can to make that happen.

Hayman is pleased with the changes in the country's healthy eating requirements as well as the new Michelle Obama-inspired initiatives, but assured me that AISD is already ahead of the curve of the plate. Where newly adopted and proposed regulations are laid out for public schools, AISD has either already met or well surpassed the minimum requirements. No butter or margarine is used in cooking vegetables, the french fries are actually baked, and all the high schools make their own bread. No trans fats are used and the district is striving to use only whole grains.

One big goal has been to reduce fat, especially saturated fat from school menus. Currently the  menu requires that students get less than 30 percent of calories from fat, with 10 percent or less being saturated fat. This means the pizza on whole wheat crust is now made with low fat mozzarella and low fat milk has replaced whole or two percent.

Hayman goes by the old adage, “if it's not eaten, it's not nutrition.” Enter AISD Chef Steven Burke. Over his past seven years with the district, Burke has been revamping popular recipes, making them lower in fat and sodium. He has created several non-meat options for his meatless Mondays and is constantly trying to devise foods familiar to kids, but with amped up nutrition. He practices what some call “stealth health,” where extra servings of vegetables are added to sauces and he replaces low quality ingredients with more nutritional ones.

“Being able to offer nutritional meals but also making food appealing and tasteful is a fun creative challenge,” the chef said.

Perhaps the part of the program Burke is most fired up about is working in conjunction with Farm to Table, an organization bringing produce from from local farms to the schools.

“Last year we were up to 45 schools who were getting produce from Farm to Table and the goal is to have all of our schools there in the next two or three years,” Burke said.

Although he’s happy if foods happen to be organic, Burke is more interested in the sustainability of getting produce close to home and supporting our local farmers. It takes time though, for farmers to be able to produce en masse the sheer amount of product used by a district that is one of the 50 largest in the nation.

Austin's Sustainable Food System is also helping with Hayman's vision to get kids off on the right foot early by planting gardens at local schools and teaching them what to do with the vegetables they grow.

Chef Burke with sushi.

The next hurdle in the kitchen is to decrease sodium levels wherever possible. Already few canned products are used, which is where vast amounts of sodium is usually hiding, new menus will replace salt with more herbs and spices. Burke listens to the feedback from students on what they like and what bombs, which he likened to trying to change the direction of the Titanic.

Learning that every breakfast and lunch served by AISD comes with offerings of fresh fruits and vegetables and that most meals surpass the country's nutritional requirements you have to wonder how  our schools could be responsible for making kids fat. Burke figures that even if a kid eats breakfast and lunch every day during the school year, they are only getting about 20 percent of their annual meals at school.

I still plan on sending my son to school with a sack full of organic hippie food, but now that I've seen what Hayman and Burke are up to, I'll feel a little better about him sneaking bites from his lunch buddies.

Photos courtesy of Cafeteria Chef.



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