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Towards healthier school lunches

Good for DISD.

As part of a nationwide push against childhood obesity, the Dallas Independent School District is overhauling its cafeteria menu by featuring healthier food and tossing aside classic artery cloggers.

“The challenge to improve school nutrition is coming from all directions,” said Dora Rivas, the district’s executive director of child nutrition services. “There is a great impetus right now to really work on providing healthier meals.”

[…]

Gone are nachos – a lunchroom favorite – for elementary students. Potato chips and desserts will no longer be part of meals, though they will be available a la carte.

Hamburgers and oven fries will be offered only once every two weeks at the middle school and elementary level. And breaded and pre-fried foods will be on the menu more sparingly.

New items will include black bean burgers, hummus plates and Asian chicken bowls. Romaine lettuce and spinach will take the place of iceberg lettuce in salads.

Brown rice will replace white rice.

For actual expert commentary on this sort of thing, I’ll refer you to The Lunch Tray. What I do know is that making this kind of change work is harder than it looks. Taking nachos off the school menu is a no-brainer, sure, but how much good are you really doing if students reject the healthier choices? It doesn’t make much sense if all that good food winds up in the garbage can because nobody wanted to eat it. That certainly doesn’t mean that it’s better to let the kids drive the decisions, just that it will take more than simply substituting black bean burgers for nachos to make this work. Frankly, what it will likely take is a certain amount of marketing to make the kids at least willing to give new foods a try – trust me on this, that is highly non-trivial – and a willingness to listen and adapt to the feedback you get. I hope DISD has someone thinking about all this, and I wish them all the best of luck with it.

One more thing:

The healthy upgrades do come at a price. DISD already spends about $80 million each year providing 120,000 lunches, 46,000 breakfasts and 10,000 after-school snacks. The new menu’s food and supplies could cost up to an extra $3 million this year, said Brad Trudeau, the district’s director of food production and procurement.

That’s a 3.75 percent increase in the cost of providing meals. Given the great long-term upside of getting the kids to eat healthier foods, it would be penny-wise and pound foolish in the extreme to see that as anything but a fine and worthwhile investment. There is a point at which you would say it’s costing too much, but 3.75 percent is a long way from that point.

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