Richmond Avenue School third-graders Yohana Vasquez-Perla, 8, and Jamil Camacho, 9, sat side-by-side in the Atlantic City school’s cafeteria Wednesday looking over their school lunches.
Based on their chattiness, you would think the school had paid the pair to act excited about the juicy plum, steamed broccoli and side salads in the portion-appropriate compartments on the plastic trays before them, but that wasn’t the case.
Vasquez-Perla and Camacho have been learning about the importance of eating healthy, balanced meals since they were in kindergarten, they said. These students and others their age are the pioneers for healthy school lunches.
For the past four years, the Atlantic City School District has followed the recommendations of the USDA’s National School Lunch Program, NSLP, and School Breakfast Program, SBP, adding more fruits, vegetables and whole grains to its menus and reducing portion sizes and calories.
Under the 2010 federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, these programs’ recommendations are now law. The lunch program guidelines took effect in 2012-13. The breakfast program takes effect this school year.
Wesley Wallace, the Atlantic City School District’s food service manager, contracted by Sodexo, its meal provider, said that for younger students, the new, healthier fare is the norm.
“They know of no other kind of lunch,” Wallace said.
Vasquez-Perla and Camacho appeared to know a lot more about nutrition and proper eating than one would expect based on their ages.
“It keeps us focused in school. It keeps our minds fresh,” said Vasquez-Perla, as she pointed to her brain and gave a big, front-toothless smile, before digging into the broccoli.
Camacho chimed in, “Yeah, it makes us prepared for school, so we’re not all tired and going crazy in class, like when we have too much sugar. We can pay attention more.”
Wallace said because of the new breakfast program regulations, the district’s breakfasts were updated this year.
Vasquez-Perla and Camacho said Wednesday’s breakfast was cereal and milk. One-percent milk, Wallace corrected.
“And the best part is, we get big salads for lunch,” Vasquez-Perla said.
Wallace said when he was growing up, he wasn’t this excited about fruits and vegetables.
“The trick I think is getting them hooked at an early age,” he said. “These kids don’t know of school lunch with cheese fries and soda. This is what they know, and they know it’s good for them. So when they get to high school, they won’t expect anything else.”
The NSLP provides reimbursements to schools that participate, about $2.50 to $3 for free and reduced-priced lunches and 30 cents for paid-lunches; and about $1.25 to $1.50 for free and reduced-priced breakfasts and 27 cents for paid breakfasts.
Schools that get their menus certified in compliance with the updated requirements receive an extra 6 cents in federal cash reimbursement per meal. Wallace said the 6 cents per meal adds about $51,000 annually to his total top-line revenue, money that is needed when trying to buy better food on a restricted budget.
The state Department of Education expects school meal programs to be self-supporting, and not subsidized by taxpayers.
The state Department of Agriculture Bureau of Child Nutrition Programs sets the maximum a district can charge for school lunches. For 2013-14, that amount is $3.75 in elementary schools, $4 in middle schools and $4.25 in high schools.
Student eligibility for the free or reduced-price meals is on a sliding scale based on family size and income. For example, a family of three making below $31,161 in annual income would qualify for reduced-priced lunch, below $25,389 free lunch.
Because the Atlantic City School District has a high student poverty rate — about 85 percent of its students receive free or reduced-priced lunch — every student receives free breakfast. Starting Oct. 7, every student in the after-school program will receive dinner.
John Kummings, principal of Glenwood Avenue Elementary School said when the menus were first updated last year, the children were a little apprehensive to try the food. The school is part of the Wildwood School District, in which about 88 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch and all receive free breakfast.
“It took a little transition, but that’s the case any time you introduce something new to a child,” Kummings said. “Like the wheat bread, we had to make them close their eyes and taste it, or the salads, we had to give them a dressing they like.”
Now, some of the Glenwood cafeteria’s favorites are the baked sweet-potato fries and the whole-wheat pizza, he said.
Karen Watson, the food service director at the Northfield Community School, which uses Nutri-Serve Inc. as its meal provider, said the method she took when transitioning to a healthier menu was relating it to things students already knew and liked.
For example, the popular mac-and-cheese is now mac-and-trees, which looks suspiciously like the old version but is made with whole-wheat macaroni and broccoli, hence the trees. And the burgers are now loaded with lettuce and tomatoes on top of a whole-wheat bun and called a Crabby Patty.
“I think it’s about getting them excited about eating healthy,” Watson said. “We do fresh fruit Friday where we hand out samples of a new fruit each week, and they can’t get into the line fast enough.”
“No more ice cream at lunch. Wow,” Northfield School Superintendent Janice Fipp said.
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