Story and photos by Mike O'Brien
If the old saying is true and an apple a day really does keep the doctor away, local schools are doing their best to make sure kids have perfect attendance. Americans are notorious for having bad eating habits, and while McDonalds, Burger King, and Pizza Hut may dominate diets, such is no longer the case in the cafeterias of Clinton County.
Clinton County public school districts–including Plattsburgh City, Beekmantown Central, Peru Central, Saranac Central, and AuSable Valley–all belong to Clinton County Table Top, an organization focusing on keeping school lunches as healthy as possible.
According to Jeanine Kerr, cafeteria supervisor of Cumberland Head School—an elementary school in the Beekmantown Central School District—the lunchroom items that have changed the most are the snacks and beverages.
All snack food must have no more than seven grams of fat, and no more than two grams of saturated fat. More than 360 grams of sodium is off-limits, and students' sugar intake is monitored as well. More than 15 grams of sugar is acceptable; however, items can not exceed 15 grams of added sugar.
“Basically, if God put it there, it’s alright,” said Kerr. To illustrate her point, she said that cafeterias can have a carton of milk with more than 15 grams of sugar because the sugars in milk are natural, as opposed to the artificial sugars in fruit punch.
“The one thing that doesn’t meet the total guidelines, but is a step in the right direction, is the ice cream,” admits Kerr. The ice cream available in Cumberland Head School’s cafeteria contains 4 grams of saturated fat, which is a far cry from the former popular frozen dessert–the vanilla ice cream; hot fudge; peanut treat known as a Nutty Buddy.
Along the same lines as ice cream, fatty potato chips have been replaced with baked chips. Bowen, who teaches an annual program about healthy eating habits, administered a taste test and was surprised to find that the fourth graders of Peru Primary School complained about the way regular chips made their mouths feel greasy and preferred baked chips.
October 8’s menu consists of a chef’s salad, a soft pretzel, and applesauce. On October 19, students can have baked chicken nuggets (nothing is fried), rice pilaf, carrots, and an apple, which Dr. Jean Coates—the head of Plattsburgh State University's nutrition department—agrees is a well-balanced meal.
Kerr called the abolition of junk-food “a work in progress that has scaled down a lot in the past year.”
Connie Whalen, a Plattsburgh State University student, went to Plattsburgh High School. A 2003 graduate, Whalen remembers that “some of the lunch was healthy, but it was totally outweighed by all the snacks, like chips and the big Texas cookies.” Whalen brought her own lunch to school every day to avoid the food in the cafeteria, the majority of which she dismissed as “junk.”
While Whalen is glad to see the school lunches at her alma mater take a nutritious turn, the changes are not exclusive to public schools.
Donna Stockdale, of the Seton Catholic cafeteria, said that her school “received the government guidelines and is in the process of setting up a committee to study these issues by next school year.”
The snacks at Seton Catholic—a middle/high school in Plattsburgh—do not yet meet the nutritional standards, but they are well on their way. Balancing the chips and ice cream out with sugar free beverages, low-fat granola bars, and low-fat pretzels.
So where did the sudden surge for well-balanced school lunches come from? “It all stems from childhood obesity,” Bowen said. “Society is getting so big that diabetes is developing during the teen years.”
Indeed, according to an online weight loss program, 25 percent of overweight children are already showing signs of impaired glucose intolerance, or type II diabetes. Type II diabetes, associated with obesity, has jumped up 16 percent in children since 1990.
As Bowen thinks, eating habits develop at a young age and the new lunch plans that Clinton County schools are implementing are designed to help the students ward off a future of obesity, diabetes, and all-around bad health. “This is only one meal and it depends what they’re eating at home. But it can definitely help,” Coates says.
We’ve all heard of the Food Guide Pyramid, but most people don’t know the details, let alone actually follow it. “The Pyramid calls for eating a variety of foods to get the nutrients you need and at the same time the right amount of calories to maintain or improve your weight,” says the official web site of the Federal Citizen Information Center.
The bottom of the pyramid is the “grains group.” This group consists of breads, cereals, rice and pasta. It is recommended that you have 6-11 daily servings from this group.The next level is referred to as the “plants group,” which comprises two groups: fruits and vegetables. Most people don’t eat enough of this group’s 5-9 servings (3-5 for vegetables and 2-4 for fruits), which are great sources of vitamins, minerals and fiber.
The third level, which can be called the “animals level,” also has two groups. One encompasses dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yogurt. The other group is mostly meat, eggs, beans, and nuts. These are the groups for protein, calcium, iron and zinc.At the top of the food pyramid is the “fats, oils and sweets” group, made-up of salad dressing, cream, butter, sugars, candy, soda, and sweet desserts among others. These foods, while tasty, are mostly empty calories and should be used sparingly.
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