2013-08-08 / Health & Wellness

Toward healthier cafeterias

By Stephanie Bertholdo


WELLNESS POLICY—Nina Braynina and Waleska Cannon, director of child nutrition for LVUSD, in the kitchen at Alice C. Stelle Middle School on July 22. The district is working to improve school lunches. 
RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers WELLNESS POLICY—Nina Braynina and Waleska Cannon, director of child nutrition for LVUSD, in the kitchen at Alice C. Stelle Middle School on July 22. The district is working to improve school lunches. RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers Feeding the children in Las Virgenes Unified School District has evolved into a focus on overall student wellness.

In an effort to curb childhood obesity, which has been linked to Type 2 diabetes in children, state and federal officials got tough on what students can buy in school cafeterias.

The labyrinth of new state and federal school regulations has been daunting for the employees who work in school nutrition.

But Waleska Cannon, the district’s director of nutrition, spent a year digesting the new regulations and counting calories, carbs and proteins. Then she and a team of parents, teachers, students and community members formed the district’s Wellness Committee.

Nina Braynina, a graduate student at California State University Northridge, worked on the Wellness Committee as an intern and eventually used the experience as the basis of her master’s project.

The committee created healthy— and tasty— lunch menus for students plus an added awareness of overall health that includes physical activity.

In fall 2012, federal guidelines were created on how much milk, fruit, vegetables, proteins and grains children should eat, but along with that list came a list of no-nos. Cannon’s team examined saturated fat, sodium and portion sizes to develop healthy lunchtime fare for elementary, middle and high school students.

Each meal has to include at least one fruit or vegetable, with a variety of colorful veggies offered. At least half of the breads and other baked goods have to contain whole grains. Two grains per week can be served as a dessert.

Cannon said the regulations used to require minimum calories, but the new law gives a maximum calorie count.

“We have to stay in the range,” she said. “In order to meet the requirements, we’re focusing on cooking from scratch.”

Meals are prepared every morning in the central kitchen at A.C. Stelle Middle School.

In elementary school, instead of a small side salad, children are given a full-size salad, sometimes packed with quinoa, a high protein grain. Homemade spaghetti and meatballs, chicken and rice, ravioli and other child-tested recipes that were developed last year have been further refined for the upcoming school year.

School nutritionists throughout California have been refining school breakfast and lunch menus for the past year, responding to complaints that the lunches were smaller and kids still felt hungry after eating.

“The new regulations focus on increasing fruits and vegetables and limiting calories, and as a result many students feel that they are not getting enough food,” Cannon said. “We didn’t have many complaints (in Las Virgenes), although at some campuses the parents commented that the meals were smaller.”

The whole-grain menu has not been popular with some students, but Cannon believes the addition of gourmet breads from Wildflour Bakery in Agoura Hills will have a big impact this year on how kids feel about healthier grains.

Wildflour created a nine-grain breadstick and homemade sandwiches on whole-grain bread last year that are growing in popularity.

“We also have a contract with Gold Star Foods for their fresh bread program,” she said. “The whole-grain rule is there and will become stricter each year. We really have to introduce a wider variety of tasty whole-grain products.”

Buying trends are followed at 12 of the 15 schools in Las Virgenes. Cannon said fewer students are buying lunches, but she can’t attribute the trend to the new regulations because there has also been a decrease in enrollment overall and a slight increase in families qualifying for the free and reduced-price lunch program.

“We have been successful at most of our schools by offering a wider variety of specialty salads and more fresh fruit. We are also working on creating a standard menu for the schools, and that way the schools with the most success can share their recipes and ideas.”

Michele Reitzin-Bass has experienced the shift in wellness as both a team member dedicated to making a change in school lunches and student wellness, and as mother of two kids in the district. Her daughter, Celine, who will attend Calabasas High School in the fall, needed help learning how to eat well. Celine’s physical education teacher from A.C. Stelle Middle School, Katie Flanagan, worked out a personalized food and fitness plan for Celine as part of the new focus on overall health for students.

“It’s not just about looking good; it’s about feeling good,” Reitzin-Bass said. “It was so nice that a P.E. teacher took an interest. It’s what a wellness policy is all about.”

Reitzin-Bass also worked with Cannon on the Wellness Committee. A 28-year school food services professional, she created a presentation for administrators and teachers so they could understand the changes in nutrition standards required by state and federal law.

“We worked really hard on it,” Reitzin-Bass said of the district’s wellness program. “It was great. I loved being a part of it. We’re making a lot of progress.”

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