A healthier lunch menu was the order of the day at Thomas Jefferson Middle School as students and Virginia's First Lady Lisa Collis taste-tested new cafeteria foods.
Collis awarded Jefferson a gold medal on behalf of Virginia Action for Healthy Kids, a statewide task force to promote better eating and exercise habits in schools.
"Childhood obesity and overweight have reached alarming levels in our nation and in the state of Virginia. The causes for this are argued at length," Collis said, during a presentation at Jefferson on Wednesday, Oct. 13.
"We blame suburban sprawl. We blame fast food. We blame the allure of Playstation and television, soft drinks and the corn syrup lobby," she said. "But whatever the cause is, the solutions are seemingly and disarmingly simple. We all know that what our children need is to eat healthy diets and an increase their physical activity."
Collis added, "If your child attends Arlington Public Schools, the task has become a little easier."
APPROXIMATELY 30.3 PERCENT of American children ages 6 to 11 are overweight and 15.3 percent are obese, according to the American Obesity Association, a non-profit public policy group. Among adolescents ages 12 to 19, 30.4 percent are overweight and 15.5 percent are obese.
Arlington has created an inter-disciplinary committee of educators and health experts to combat childhood obesity and to promote health in schools. To encourage fitness, the school system has instituted a mandatory recess policy and scaled down the amount of fattening food served in school cafeterias.
"They've taken a hard look at the cafeteria menus and reduced high-fat offerings," Collis said. "Unfortunately, that means French fries, kids."
After her presentation, Collis and a group of nine students sampled a selection of new cafeteria foods like the bagler, a bite-sized bit of bagel dough and creme cheese, popcorn fish nuggets and low-fat sausage rolls.
"Health is definitely a focus in everything we're showing," said Jenny Huff, representative for T. Furr & Associates, a cafeteria food supply company, who collected forms from the students outlining the results of their taste test. "For example, on the baglers, that's a zero-transfat product, which is key now because as far as health goes, a lot of people are looking at transfats. The chicken charms, from Tyson, are also 30 percent calories from fat, which is also a big deal. It's a whole breast meat product, but it's very low in fat."
FISH NUGGETS, a product federally approved as a healthy addition to lunch menus, is one many nutritionists want to catch on among students, Huff said. "Anything we can do to get kids to eat fish is good and this bakes up very crunchy," she said.
And the taste? Answers from the student focus group varied.
"I like the fish popcorn and the fish tenders," said 13-year-old Bonnie Zix. But, pointing to the uneaten sausage roll on her plate, she said, "I don't like this by the way it looks and I'm not really big on the baglers or the veggie stuff. I don't really like veggies, even when they don't look like veggies."
Some students liked the baglers, or, at least parts of them.
"I thought the cinnamon bagler is really good," said Jordan Madrid, 11. But the cream cheese bagler "doesn't taste like anything and there's way too much cream cheese there," Jordan said.
Healthier lunches might be good for students, but some still prefer the foods they're used to.
"I was kind of mad when I found out we could only get French fries three day a week," said Andrew Trombly, 13. "But now you can get nachos, which I guess is just as good."