DHS mixes up the menu
School follows task force lead and aims for nutrition
Theresa Martinez helps out in the DHS kitchen behind a tray of salads for sale. /Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Adam Howell

The food options and overall health of students in District 9-R schools created concerns for a local dietician last year. Wendy Rice was specifically worried about empty-calorie foods in the cafeteria and the high-fat, high-sugar options served in the vending machines.

So Rice, who directs Durango's Healthy Lifestyle Coalition and works as a family and consumer science extension agent for the Colorado State University Extension Office, helped form the Nutritional Task Force. Last spring the group made recommendations to the district's director of nutrition, Kim Cotta, and they were implemented to the benefit of student health.

Vending machines were restocked with more nutritional alternatives in accordance with recommendations from a new state law, and tables in the lunchroom were replaced with round and oval tables, which encourage kids to converse and be more sociable.

Now, Rice is recommending that the cafeteria at the high school should provide more high-quality options such as smoothies, more fresh produce, and less processed foods, among other things.

However, the school depends on students buying lunch that often consists of inexpensive commodities to keep the cost of producing each meal reasonable, according to Deborah Uroda, 9-R's Public Information Director. This becomes more difficult, she said, in light of a 2001 district survey. The survey found that 80 percent of parents who responded said they would send a lunch to school with their kids if one at the school cost more than $1.75 to $2.

"Our community clamors for better food for their students," Uroda said, "but the community isn't willing to pay for its school lunches."

For example, the cost of one broiled, skinless chicken breast is nearly four times the cost of a serving of chicken nuggets, Uroda said.

"Just as you can't lead a horse to water and make it drink," Uroda said. "You can't provide a child with a nutritious meal and make him eat."

But during the last USDA school lunch program audit in 2001, the district was found to be out of compliance in its targeted percentage of calories provided from fat, Uroda said.

Accordingly, the district offers pizza with low-fat cheese and already offers or plans to offer salad bars or salad options at all of its elementary schools as one remedy, Uroda said. She added that overall audits indicate the district has a strong track record of providing balanced meals. Since the audit and the recent renovation, nutritional options at the high school have increased, and all students are allowed to take an extra serving of fruits and vegetables at no cost. Plus, a fresh-fruit smoothie bar is an option planned for later this spring, Uroda added. In addition, the high school and Miller Middle School are the only schools that allow vending machines. Vending machines at both schools are stocked with at least 50 percent healthy options, such as water, juice, nuts and whole-grain bars, and the Miller machines are turned off during the school day, while the DHS ones are turned off during lunchtime. Furthermore, sodas are not served during the high school lunch, she said.

At the same time, the high school's food quality has improved greatly this year over past years, Cotta said. It has a better facility in terms of keeping food hot. Also, the high school is using a new vegetable steamer and conventional oven.

Above all, Rice said she wants to emphasize healthy options in the schools. In addition to promoting adequate levels of exercise, Rice said she also wants to see choices available to the students that will fulfill their nutrient needs to give them the best brain and body possible.

Rice concluded that the district shares these goals. It's just a matter of time. "It's a slow go, but they will eventually get to that point in the cafeteria," she said.

As for Uroda, she pointed out that while the district makes every attempt to provide nutritious, balanced and affordable meals, oftentimes the road to smart dining choices begins at home.

"When you see a half-full carton of fresh milk or an apple with one bite out of it thrown away, you have to wonder who's responsible for teaching that child good eating habits."





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