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Publish Date: 3/27/2005

Ellen Mastie, 15, left, and Erica Vaiser, 15, eat lunch at Niwot High School on Friday. The school district says it is going to stop offering unhealthy foods. Times-Call/Hunter McRae

School lunches take healthy turn

LONGMONT — St. Vrain students who live on candy, high-sugar sodas, giant cookies and 5-ounce bags of chips face a rude awakening next year.

The St. Vrain Valley School District has changed its nutrition policy to eliminate high-fat, high-sugar foods and beverages, a plan that will please parents and make some kids despair.

A la carte items that get more than 30 percent of their calories from fat and more than 35 percent of their weight from sugar will not be sold at St. Vrain’s secondary schools next year. Serving sizes also will be much smaller, weighing between 1.5 ounces and 2.5 ounces.

In their place, schools will offer more healthful snacks, such as regular-sized cookies, low-fat muffins — not the giant variety — and low-fat, baked chips.

Beverages sold in the school lunch program will contain 100 percent juice from fruit, be caffeine-free and not exceed 12 ounces in size, except for bottled water. Milk will contain 1 percent or 2 percent milk fat and will be served in chocolate, white and strawberry varieties.

Public schools in general are moving toward selling more heart-healthy, nutritious meals, but St. Vrain is slightly ahead of the curve, according to Brent Craig, St. Vrain’s director of food services, purchasing and warehouse services.

This year, Craig formed a School Nutrition Advisory Council, or SNAC. The group, made up of doctors, dieticians, school administrators and food service employees, spent two months going over what is sold in schools.

Once the group figured out what was being served, it then began the hefty task of looking into similar products that are more nutritious.

Food services has piloted a number of new items at different secondary schools in the district, including fruit smoothies from Inta’ Juice and deli-style sandwiches or tortilla wrap sandwiches that are served with fresh fruit, a 1 oz. bag of chips and a small carton of milk.

The so-called grab ’n’ go meals have been popular, Craig said.

The district served 480 grab ’n’ go meals at Heritage Middle School one day last week.

“Kids love them. They want them every day,” said Craig. “Our a la carte goes down considerably because they fill up on the grab ’n’ go’s.”

At Longmont High School, which received a commons area facelift over the summer, students seem to like the grab ’n’ go meals.

Ben Osborn, 14, said he felt the meals were a good deal at $1.45, considering each one comes with a slice of pizza or deli-style sandwich, a drink and fruit. One slice of pizza purchased a la carte, in comparison, costs 5 cents more than the meal.

He said he would be interested in “more complete meals for less price.”

Craig said part of what makes the grab ’n’ go meals sell so well is the clear plastic containers they come in. Students can see what they’re getting and how fresh it is, he said. All of the grab ’n’ go’s are made fresh daily.

Austin Fracchia, 17, a junior at Longmont High, said the move to more nutritious meals is a “downer because I like snack foods, but it is probably a good idea. Schools have a responsibility to provide a lot more nutrition than they have in recent years.”

Fracchia said he eats a hot lunch just about every day, with some a la carte items mixed in for good measure.

“I don’t know what is in it or where it comes from, but I haven’t gotten sick yet,” he said with a laugh.

Other students hanging out in the commons area, or L-Town Cafe, bring their lunch every day because they “like to know where my food comes from,” said 17-year-old Elaine Bidinger, a senior

Most students seem pleased with the more open atmosphere of the commons and that they have more options for lunch.

Longmont High principal Mary White said a number of students didn’t want to eat at school previously because they had to wait in line to see what meal options were available.

“It wasn’t a very inviting place,” White said.

L-Town Cafe is set up like a buffet, allowing students to see immediately if there is something they are interested in eating.

“It’s safer (having students remain on campus rather than leave to get lunch),” White said. “There are also less problems with kids getting back late.”

That increase in students eating lunch on campus has translated into more sales for the district’s food services department.

Last year, Longmont High had $400 in daily sales from snacks and a la carte and sold 50 reimbursable meals per day. This year, the school averages about $1,200 a day in a la carte sales and sells 150 reimbursable meals, Craig said.

At Niwot High School, students are jealous of their peers at Longmont High.

Niwot doesn’t have as many options, yet, and many they do have are unpalatable, according to 17-year-old Vivian Nguyen.

She and her lunch buddies are in favor of healthier options, complaining that much of the food sold at Niwot is dripping in grease.

“I think it will be a good thing; baked stuff is really good. It’s better for you,” 17-year-old Keri Selzler said about the district’s switch to more healthful food options next year.

Others at the table were eating slices of pizza, brownies and big bags of chips.

Pizza is one of the most popular secondary school lunch options, Craig said. As part of the district’s move to more healthful lunches, he is negotiating with Pizza Hut and Domino’s Pizza to use low-fat mozzarella cheese on pizzas delivered to the schools next year.

He also wants to introduce a Qdoba-style bean and rice burrito.

“We’re going to do a lot with fresh fruit cups, fresh grapes, pineapple and melon,” he said.

The district also is devising a low-fat yogurt dip for its fresh fruit platters.

“Dip has to be with everything, I’ve learned,” said Craig.

The schools’ deep-fat fryers are being retired next year. Everything will be baked, including chicken strips, he said.

But a more healthful menu comes at a cost: The price of school lunch and breakfast is going up next year.

At elementary schools, lunch will cost $1.75 and breakfast will cost $1.

At the secondary level, lunch will cost $2 and breakfast will cost $1.25. Adults will pay $2.50 for lunch and $1.50 for breakfast.

In its report to the St. Vrain Valley Board of Education last week, the SNAC committee estimated the district would lose between 25 percent and 75 percent of its a la carte sales once its new nutrition plan goes into effect.

“To offset that potential financial loss, we have to sell more meals and increase the price to maintain a positive fund balance,” the report said.

Lunch ladies at Niwot High said they are concerned kids will stop eating at school when the new rules are adopted.

“I really hope the kids will adapt to this. They are so used to eating sugary stuff,” one lunch lady said.

The school lunch program “could be in jeopardy if we don’t sell enough lunches. I hope it works out; it would be healthier,” she said.

Paula Aven Gladych can be reached at 303-684-5211, or by e-mail at pavengladych@times-call.com.

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