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Cafeteria workers Jane McDonald and Kathy Trapp put tater tots into small cups as they prepare for lunch at Highlands Elementary School in Concord Calif., on Friday Nov. 16, 2012. School districts throughout the country and state are implementing new guide lines for school lunches that require more fruits, vegetables and whole grain breads baked from scratch. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Staff)

From West Contra Costa to Oakland Unified to San Jose's Oak Grove school district, cafeterias are filling lunch trays with more produce and vegetarian entrees, along with whole grains, less salt and -- the horror! -- less chocolate milk.

"I like milk because it helps your bones," said 10-year-old Daniel Martinez, sporting a milky white mustache after finishing off his carton of low-fat milk during lunch at Ford Elementary in Richmond. "Chocolate milk is bad because it has a lot of sugar."

New federal school lunch guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have spawned a revolution in the kinds of foods offered to students, with the goal of promoting more healthful diets and battling obesity and diabetes. Twenty-three percent of American adolescents are now diabetic or prediabetic, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. And obesity rates for school-age children have tripled over the past three decades, said Jill West, a registered dietitian working with the West Contra Costa school district.

The challenge is making the menus healthful yet appetizing to picky young taste buds.


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Middle schools in San Jose's Oak Grove School District have launched popular "topping bars," stocked with such items as diced onions, jalapeños, olives and beans. Ford Elementary and other West Contra Costa district schools have introduced "meatless Mondays," along with 100 percent whole-grain foods. Students in the New Haven district in Union City are treated to Spanish rice and chicken fajitas made from scratch. In Oakland schools, lunches include grass-fed beef hot dogs, handmade chicken enchiladas and vegetarian enchiladas made with black beans and tofu. Meanwhile, teens at Mt. Diablo High in Concord are feasting on grilled vegetables hot off a barbecue.

The new school lunch guidelines are based on a "plate" concept instead of the outdated food pyramid.

Half the plate is set aside for fruits and vegetables, with smaller portions of grains and proteins on the other side. The meal is accompanied by low-fat or nonfat milk.

Under the old rules, a typical school lunch consisted of a breaded beef patty with ketchup, wheat roll, frozen fruit juice bar and 2 percent milk. Under the new rules, that lunch would be transformed to oven-baked fish nuggets with a whole-wheat roll, mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli, peaches, skim milk, tartar sauce and soft margarine.

The new requirements are being phased in over 10 years to allow schools and vendors to adjust their recipes. But many Bay Area school districts were ahead of the curve.

San Jose Unified had already switched to french fries that are baked, not fried, said John Sixt, director of Student Nutrition. He said the district is also reintroducing favorites such as sliders and beans. Students in San Jose's Oak Grove district gravitate to the salad bar, and "they are eating it," said Nutrition Services Director Terri Anaya.

Susan Liles, a nutrition supervisor in the West Contra Costa district, stood in the cafeteria at Ford Elementary School and gave high-fives and stickers to students who ate their fruits and vegetables. To get children used to seeing vegetables on their plate, the district added broccoli to macaroni and cheese. "Travel Thursdays" showcase dishes such as Thai chicken with vegetables and Creole chicken with vegetables.

"The more variety a child sees, the more likely they are to take something," Liles said. "We try not to have any entree repeat in a four-week cycle, so it's always new."

At Highlands Elementary in Concord, students recently chose between fruit and vegetable options that included edamame soy beans, green salad, corn mixed with kidney beans, baby carrots, celery sticks, applesauce and grape juice -- along with turkey and potatoes or baked chicken nuggets.

"We try to do something meatless every day," said Anna Fisher, director of Food and Nutrition Services in the Mt. Diablo school district in Contra Costa. "I'm really surprised at how much they like the edamame. That's the most popular item on here."

Oakland Unified has switched from serving prepackaged, processed foods that could be bought and warmed up to foods cooked in the cafeteria, with an emphasis on seasonal produce and international flavors.

"Our students love the new meals because they look good, taste good, and are prepared with fresh, local ingredients whenever possible," said Superintendent Tony Smith. "As a superintendent, I love them, too, because I know that students who eat balanced meals perform better academically, are more well-adapted and experience more positive life outcomes."

Ford Elementary is one of several schools that received a grant to teach students and parents about nutrition.

Anthony Cortez, 10, said he has learned it's important to eat fruits and vegetables, and exercise.

"When you eat hard, you play hard," the fifth-grader said. "The more healthy stuff you eat, the more energy you have and then the more play you can do. The fruits and vegetables also help us think and help us stay healthy and not get sick."

Staff writers Sharon Noguchi and Katy Murphy contributed to this report.

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SCHOOL LUNCH GUIDELINES
School food menus in California and throughout the nation were revamped this year to meet new nutrition guidelines developed by the Institute of Medicine and U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The new guidelines include:
  • Increased fruits and vegetable options every day of the week
  • No trans fats
  • Portion size and calorie limits based on child's age
  • More whole-grain products
  • Restriction on types of milk offered, with emphasis on low-fat (1 percent) and nonfat varieties
  • Less salt (phased in over several years)
    Read more
    For details on food programs, go to www.fns.usda.gov/cnd.
    For details about schools in your area, read the On Assignment blog at IBAbuzz.com/onassignment.
    To see the Mt. Diablo school district's new whole-grain bread recipe, go to ContraCostaTimes.com/education.
    Source: The California Endowment