W.Va. Schools Serving Up Healthy Meals

February 14, 2007

CHARLESTON, W.Va. _ At a time when childhood obesity is at record levels, the West Virginia Department of Education is leading the nation with innovative policies and programs aimed at improving school nutrition.  

Some states allow ala carte choices and other offerings from such outlets as Taco Bell and Domino’s pizza to be sold that may not meet federal nutrition guidelines. But in West Virginia, schools are prohibited from such sales. Meals must be nutritionally balanced. West Virginia also is the first state to mandate that breakfast be served at school.  

“Research proves time and time again that there is a significant link between nutrition and learning,” said State Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine. “A well-nourished child does better on tests, has fewer behavior problems and has less absenteeism.”  

West Virginia schools were recently recognized nationally for serving free or reduced-price breakfast to a greater proportion of children from low-income families than any other state in the nation. The Food Research and Action Center’s School Breakfast Scorecard 2006 shows that West Virginia served breakfast to 58.5 children for every 100 children who also participated in the federal School Lunch Program. Nationally, 44.6 low-income children received breakfast for every 100 eating lunch, the report said.  

Children who eat breakfast and lunch at school consume twice as many servings of fruits, vegetables and milk than those who don’t participate in school programs. They also drink one-fourth fewer soft drinks and skip fewer meals. That’s especially important in West Virginia where 51 percent of students qualify for free school meals.  

“Many West Virginia students would get no meal, or at best a nutritionally poor one, if they did not eat at school,” Paine said.  

One in three West Virginia children born today will likely develop diabetes by adulthood. The state is consistently among the top three states for obesity with about a third of its residents considered obese and more considered overweight, according to the state Bureau of Public Health.  

The West Virginia Board of Education recognizes this challenge and that’s why it has embraced innovative programs to increase school nutrition programs, including serving breakfast after first period and in the classroom as well as offering grab and go items and hallway breakfast carts.  

State policy also prohibits the sale of sodas in elementary and middle schools and requires only healthy drinks be sold. It also prohibits the sale of candy or chewing gum and limits what is sold in vending machines and when they can be turned so that they don’t interfere with school lunches.  

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has criticized secondary schools nationwide for selling junk food in vending machines. It said 75 percent of drinks and 85 percent of snacks are of poor nutritional value.  

"We want to reduce the amount of total fat and sugar kids eat,” Paine said. “We're trying to teach them to make balanced choices, that fruit can be a good choice even in a world full of Oreos.”  

The National School Lunch Program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides commodity foods, such as cheese and canned vegetables, at a low cost and reimburses schools up to $2.40 per meal. The USDA calls for high school lunches to be 840 calories, give or take 10 percent, while elementary school lunches should be about 660.  

West Virginia recognizes that kids want foods that appeal to them and tries to offer healthier versions of comfort foods. Schools may offer biscuits and gravy but this version is made with a reduced fat biscuit mix and a zero fat gravy mix. The fries are oven-baked and the pizza is made with a multi-grain crust.  

“It’s definitely not like Grandma’s,” said Rick Goff, director of the West Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Child Nutrition. “What we hope parents and others realize is what they read on the menu, isn’t necessarily what’s on the plate.”

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