Donna West

Brownwood Elementary Child Nutrition Program Manager Donna West stands at the register during lunch Tuesday at the school to ensure students have selected the required amount of fruits and vegetables for their meal.

The nutrition offered in school meals has become a major focus within the Scottsboro City School District, and one district employee recently took this initiative to our nation’s capital in an effort to showcase what is being done in Scottsboro to help kids eat healthier.

Earlier this month, Brownwood Elementary Child Nutrition Program Manager Donna West traveled to Washington, D.C., to take part in a national gathering hosted by The Pew Charitable Trusts in support of efforts to improve school nutrition. West said she was chosen by Pew to attend this conference after she had served on a task force with the organization as it worked to gather information on school kitchen infrastructure needs throughout the U.S. a couple years ago.

While in Washington, West met with Rep. Spencer Bachus, Sen. Richard Shelby, Rep. Robert Aderholt and Rep. Mo Brooks to share examples of how the Scottsboro City School system is at the forefront of a national school health movement by serving and selling healthier meals, snacks and drinks to students.

“A panel of food service personnel, administrators, parents and community stakeholders were assembled from across the nation by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Pew is a global research and public policy organization that is operated as an independent, non-partisan, non-governmental organization dedicated to serving the public,” West said. “With the impending reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, our goal was to encourage policymakers to continue supporting better, more wholesome nutrition for our children.”

According to a press release, healthier nutrition standards for school meals went into effect in the fall of 2012, but Scottsboro City Schools Child Nutrition Program Director Melva Rodgers said she felt it was best that her school district get a head start.

“We started implementing changes to our menus in 2010, before the new requirements were mandated,” she said. “We believed it was in the best interest of our students to go ahead and get a jumpstart on introducing these new meal changes to them.”

According to the release, these changes entailed serving more fruits and vegetables and offering more whole grains and low-fat milk, and making these changes early turned Scottsboro City Schools into a model of success in Alabama and around the country.

“The Scottsboro City School District is following the new USDA Meal Pattern Requirements by providing more whole grains, fruits and a variety of vegetables every day,” Rodgers said. “We are also watching calorie ranges and limiting saturated fat intake and are working hard at reaching the recommended sodium targets set by USDA.”

So just how are these standards impacting the food offered in school lunches? Rodgers said pizza day provides a great illustration to answer this question.

“A good example to compare and contrast is pizza day,” she said. “The menu, which includes pizza, tossed salad, corn, fruit and milk, is still the same, but the changes include lower fat content in the salad dressing, less fat in the slice of pizza as a result of the crust being changed to include more whole grains, providing either fresh fruit or canned fruit that does not contain heavy syrup, and serving fat-free flavored or non-flavored milk. These slight changes lower the fat content and calories while simultaneously offering students a product they enjoy eating.”

But pizza day isn’t the only meal to receive a nutritional facelift, as schools throughout the district focus on promoting healthier options, including more fruits and vegetables, the release said. Brownwood Elementary School has been the recipient of a Fresh Fruits and Vegetables grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for several years. Through this program, West is able to encourage students to sample a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, which is something she enjoys doing. According to the NEA Health Information Network, West says the most enjoyable part about her job is “seeing the children excited about their food and being able to offer a wide variety of foods to sample, which increases students’ chances for making healthier choices in the future.”

While a wider variety of fruits and veggies are being offered to students, that doesn’t necessarily translate to the kids consuming them. However, students are gradually growing accustomed to the new menus, West said, adding that she tries to focus on offering healthy options that most of the students seem to enjoy.

“Research shows that plate waste is down, but it could be better. Eating healthy is a lifestyle change, and it will take time to fully see the results. We are moving in the right direction mentally, physically and emotionally,” she said. “Some of the popular fruits and vegetables are sweet peppers, cucumbers, grapes, blueberries and strawberries. We try our best to serve items that are in season, that keep costs down and that the students will enjoy.”

Recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that just 68.9 percent of schools in Alabama are meeting the updated nutrition standards, but through a collaborative effort, West said the goal of serving healthy meals that students can look forward to can be achieved.

“Additional funds are needed to assist Alabama’s school districts in upgrading their kitchen equipment and infrastructure and to meet the training needs of staff, thereby increasing the chance of success of serving healthy meals that students will enjoy,” West said. “The collaboration of all parties concerned is the key to this success. Together we can make a difference.”

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