TRUMBULL -- Faith Wollner was shocked to hear the kind of food her daughter was eating at Trumbull High School.
Two years ago, Wollner, a yoga instructor and health advocate, had a conversation with her daughter and her daughter's friends about the substandard fare they were getting for lunch. They talked about soup with an oily film on it and a dearth of healthy menu options. "She was telling me that the food really needed improvement," Wollner said.
Improving the nutritional quality of the food served in schools has become a priority for many advocates nationwide. Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled new school meal standards. The guidelines, which will be largely phased in over a three-year period starting next school year, include offering fruits and vegetables daily and reducing sodium, saturated fat and transfats.
In Connecticut, many schools have already taken major steps to make their menu options healthier. That includes Trumbull.
On Valentine's Day, two years after her daughter told her about the food, Wollner toured the high school's kitchen to find vast improvement. She saw a bevy of fruits and vegetables on the menu, including roasted squash and sweet potato fries.
She saw signs posted in and around the cafeteria encouraging students to "Stay in top condition with healthy nutrition." Even the "junk foods" served for lunch were deceptively healthy, like a pizza made with low-fat cheese and a whole-wheat crust, and the whole-wheat, heart-shaped cookies offered as a Valentine's Day treat.
Although her daughter has since graduated from Trumbull High and Wollner has no children in the school, she said she would have no qualms her children eating this cafeteria food. "There's more fruit and vegetables on the menu," Wollner said. "Everything seems much healthier."
Wollner was joined on the cafeteria tour by Betty Sinko, director of the lunch program for the Trumbull schools, Trumbull High School Principal Robert Tremaglio, Trumbull High kitchen supervisor Tracy Stewart and students from the school's health and nutrition committee.
Sinko said the district has been working on upgrading its food for a while, based on input from parents like Wollner and students themselves.
In updating its menus, Trumbull schools have already made a number of USDA-recommended changes, such as serving only 1 percent and skim milk. "We're way ahead of the game," Sinko said.
Each lunch program has two parts -- the main lunches, which must adhere to USDA standards, and a la carte items, which include snacks, desserts and some entrees and are sold in addition to the main meal. USDA meals can be given to certain students for free or at a reduced price, and the schools can be reimbursed by the federal government. The a la carte items aren't reimbursable, and don't have to adhere to the USDA standards. Connecticut's Department of Education has nutritional standards for a la carte items that districts can choose to follow.
The state's standards are re-evaluated every year. Between the last school year and now, Connecticut made several changes to its standards for the a la carte items. For instance, it lowered the maximum amount of sodium allowed, from 500 to 480 milligrams per serving.
Overall, Connecticut has been fairly progressive in terms of improving school nutrition, said Terese Dandeneau, an educational consultant in the state education department's nutrition program. "Connecticut is one of the leading states in this area," she said.
Eileen Faustich, director of food services for Milford Public Schools, agreed. She said many districts, including Milford, have already adopted some of new USDA standards, such as only serving low-fat or skim milk. The goal, she said, was to make healthier options a regular part of the district's lunch program so the new USDA standards wouldn't surprise students. "Nobody likes to change their diet drastically," she said.
In Trumbull, the nutrition upgrades have been applauded not just by parents like Wollner, but by students.
The students who joined Sinko and others for the Valentine's Day tour included senior Madeline Kenler. The 18-year-old said her mother is a dietitian and she has always been interested in making healthy food choices. She said the improvements to Trumbull's menu have made it somewhat unique among school lunch programs.
"Everyone here loves the food," Kenler said. "That's really rare in a high school."
Cuda, Amanda. "State schools embrace healthier lunch" ctpost. February 27, 2012. Web.
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