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You can lead a student to salad...

...but can you get them to choose greens over pizza? It’s a tough sell.

Students at Bainbridge public schools now have healthier choices, but few are choosing them.

In the last year, the Bainbridge Island School District elementary school menus have added a daily salad bar with organic choices and a vegetarian option each day.

But the elementary school students seem slow to respond to the healthier lunch options now in front of them, school officials say.

“Kids don’t buy it, but (teachers) like it,” said Todd Miller, Bainbridge Island School District’s food and nutrition services supervisor. “The parents want to see it, but the kids, for whatever reason, it’s not popular, but we’ll continue to offer it.”

Parents last year pressured the school district to provide more healthy choices for lunch, and changes have appeared on the menu.

The choices are there. Now it’s a matter of getting kids to eat them.

The top sellers in the elementary school lunchrooms remain mostly the less-healthy convenience foods: chicken nuggets, pizza, bagels, French toast sticks, waffle sticks and pepperoni pizza. The one scratch-cooked meal among the popular choices is macaroni and cheese.

Also fairly popular are the scratch-made chicken noodle soup, tomato soup and pasta with marinara or meat sauce.

The least popular choices include vegetarian pizza, garden burgers, scratch-made entree salads and meatball subs.

“We try so many new things,” said Miller, who works within the constraints of nutritional requirements, serving what kids will eat and affordability. “One kid that goes without a lunch (because it’s too expensive) is one too many.

Blakely parent and nutritionist Lola O’Rourke thinks it is possible to educate students to want to choose healthy foods.

“I think there are some improvements (in school lunches),” O’Rourke said. “What’s missing is including a real education component and letting kids sample good choices and choose from that, what they want to see on the menu.”

O’Rourke says other school districts have gotten kids to eat healthier foods by including it in the curriculum – studying how food is grown, visiting organic farms or learning how to cook.

“Whenever you get kids interested in food on another level, if you get them involved in growing vegetables, it becomes their project and they’re much more interested in eating that food,” she said.

Blakely parent Dr. David Cowan agrees with O’Rourke’s assessment and has organized a parent group, Healthier Kids Bainbridge (healthierkids@aol.com), to work with the schools to return school lunches to all scratch cooking.

Each school day, Miller estimates that food services dish out about 450 meals at the island’s three elementary schools, another 550 at Sakai, Woodward and Commodore and about 400 at Bainbridge High School.

“At some level, we can (do scratch cooking), but obviously we’re faced with always having to offer some convenience foods,” Miller said, adding his budget restricts how many workers and hours he can allot to food preparation.

For now, “scratch” cooking still means putting components together into offerings such as soups, sandwiches and salads.

Ready-made meatballs and marinara sauce are combined to make homemade meat sauce. Starting a sauce from tomatoes would be too expensive in terms of labor costs.

Over the month of January, three out of 19 elementary school menus will have been made “from scratch,” including vegetarian chili topped with cheese, a choice of turkey and cheese or ham and cheese deli sandwiches and chicken noodle soup with Texas cheese toast.

Food service also offers more wholegrains now, which cost about double that of refined grains.

At Sakai, wholegrain products are offered daily.

At the high school, there are now more à la carte choices and the option to buy soy milk and natural juices. “Wellness” cereals – made with more whole grains or organic ingredients – have replaced more sugary ones.

High school lunch participation rates have increased over the last year.

This owes, at least, in part to an increase in the number of lunch lines from four to five, to get kids through more quickly in the cramped facility that was not built to serve so many students.

School meals now fulfill the nutritional standards set by the state as required by law, but going forward Miller said he would like to see school meals eventually meet the more stringent guidelines of the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” (www.healthierus.gov/dietaryguidelines), published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Miller invites feedback from students and parents through surveys and talking with the high school student council. As food services must be self-supporting – it receives no funds from the school district – offerings have to be attractive enough to maintain certain participation levels.

Revenues from the bulk of the school year need to carry the program through low revenue periods, such as at the end of the year when vacations and field trips increase and during summer vacation when workers still have to be paid.

“You slowly start new stuff and phase out the old. You have to make sure what you bring in is working,” Miller said. “I’m open to feedback all the time because that helps us grow.

“Without that, it’s shooting in the dark.”

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