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Balancing Taste and Nutrition in School Lunches

MCPS lunch menu

A sample menu in MCPS secondary schools.

Each day, tens of thousands of students across the county line up in their school cafeterias to buy their breakfasts or lunches. While they may have seen the menu options many times before, they may not be as familiar with the planning that goes into these meals.

In every school, a group of specialists set out a list of healthy meal options for students. The cafeteria staff are urged to fulfill the requirements of the United States Department of Agriculture’s HealthierUS School Challenge. Just like any other place that serves food, the cafeteria gets inspected to make sure the staff members are supplying students the required amount of nutrition.

It takes a lot of preparation to feed about two thousand students twice a day. The staff need to balance the task of making sure students receive both enough food and no more than 30 percent calories from fat and 10 percent from saturated fat.

According to Healthy Montgomery, a community health improvement group, 36.3 percent of children in Montgomery County are either overweight or obese. This figure increases to 54.3 percent for adults, often related to health complications like high cholesterol or blood pressure.

It’s clear that nutrition is a pressing issue. “Learning about healthy eating and nutrition is important so that as students develop eating habits, they can make knowledgeable choices. Reading labels and a basic understanding of the functions of various nutrients will encourage the learning of nutrition basics such as calories, obesity, nutritional requirements, etc,” explained Marla Caplon, director of the school system’s Division of Food and Nutrition Services.

Michelle Obama has made healthy food in schools one of her missions as the First Lady. She sought to prohibit sweets until half an hour after the school day ended, and that aspect of her campaign seems to have had an effect here. Many schools across Montgomery County, for instance, have already banned or severely curbed fundraisers selling baked goods.

While these changes may have resulted in complaints from some students, others recognize the importance of healthier eating choices. “I think that she has done something noble. Nutrition is super important,” said Anita Bangali, a junior at Richard Montgomery High School.

Michelle Obama has also started a program called LET’S MOVE, which motivates students to eat healthy and to get active. This movement has also been extended to schools as a part of the HealthierUS School Challenge, recognizing schools that promote healthier lifestyles and promoting nutrition education. Similarly, MCPS Food and Nutrition Services has a Wellness Policy aiming to promote healthy eating habits and physical activity.

“Entrées” of county school food vary from pizza to macaroni and cheese. While these may not be the first dishes associated with the word “healthy,” sides like fruits and salads try to get student meals to cover every food group. “Fresh fruits and vegetables are available in all schools every day, only whole grains are served and milk is either fat free or 1%,” Caplon stated.

For school system administrators and food specialists, planning the menu involves considering cost, preparation, storage, food safety, seasonal availability and whether the food is donated by the government. The menu itself goes through different cycles, which help to create an increase in the variety of healthy foods.

Of course, it can be difficult to find a mix between “healthy” and “tasty.” Many students, for instance, take issue with the latter. “I don’t have a problem with healthy food; I have a problem with unidentifiable food,” Bangali explained.

A recent trend on Twitter also revealed student dissatisfaction with school food. With #thanksmichelleobama, students post pictures of sickening school lunches. The sarcasm of the hashtag is evident, blaming Michelle Obama for bad school food and trading off healthiness for edibility. “My son’s ‘lunch’. #ThanksMichelleObama He didn’t eat that slimy excuse for edible food,” posted a Twitter user. “Everything seems so artificial,” agreed Leslie Aguilar, a junior at Wootton.

In further addressing the issue of school nutrition, the Division of Food and Nutrition Services opened up a new food and nutrition center in early January. It has a warehouse, new food preparation equipment, and a garden, Roots of Learning, where students can learn more about what they eat. One of its intentions is to allow for the preparation of more homestyle menu items.

Perhaps, with more work, students can be happier with healthier and tastier school meal options.

Article by MoCo Student staff writer Syllia Newstead

Image from MCPS Food and Nutrition Services

About The MoCo Student

In 2012, Student Member of the Board of Education John Mannes created a countywide press network to help build a conduit to share fresh and relevant information written by youth to the wider Montgomery County student body.

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