Brownies, pizza and chicken nuggets may not sound like the most nutritious menu items, but they’ve come a long way.
During Forsyth County’s third annual school food expo Wednesday, vendors offered samples with the focus on healthier options.
Instead of white dough, Uno Pizza’s crust uses a 50-50 mixture with whole grain. Tyson’s chicken nuggets are baked, not fried. Many dessert options use fruit instead of sugar and feature whole grain alternatives.
“We got the nutritional value of everything they want to show here and it has to meet the criteria for the national school lunch program,” said Susan Woods, the school system’s food service director.
“We’re looking at the alternatives because they’re going to reduce the number of times we can serve starchy vegetables a week tremendously, and that’s going to be the biggest thing that’s going to hit us.”
The reduction in starchy vegetables is just one update in a list of guidelines proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The measures include calorie limits, increasing the number of fruits and vegetables and reducing sodium by more than half over a 10-year period.
While it’s still just a proposal, the goal is for schools to raise the quality of their food offerings.
Woods has gotten a head start.
“We’re already doing it,” she said. “Pretty much everything they have in the new regulations we’re doing, except that we have to cut back on those starchy vegetables.”
Forsyth County’s school cafeterias don’t use fryers and already offer a third serving of vegetables as part of a meal’s cost.
“We don’t charge them because we want them to eat more fruits and vegetables,” she said.
One way the school system could further increase vegetables, said Kristy Williams, is if it were to go with her company.
Nearly two years ago, the Alpharetta resident and her sister founded Hidden Healthies as a way to sneak vegetables into everyday foods.
During the expo, she brought her cheese dip, which an unsuspecting student would take at face value.
Inside, however, the dip contained mostly butternut squash, sweet potatoes and white bean puree, with just a trace of cheese.
“Even though we put vegetables in front of our kids, they’re not going to always eat those vegetables,” she said. “It’s not nutritional unless they’re actually eating it and this is a way of getting those vegetables into their bodies.”
It has worked for her family, but Williams said it’s even more important outside the home. In school cafeterias, she noted, there’s “no supervision.”
“The kids are taking half a cup of vegetables off the line, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re eating it,” she said. “It’s a lot of the times going in the trash.”
That’s why Woods invited students from several schools to the expo to sample the foods and offer feedback.
“If they don’t like it, there’s no need to even introduce it,” she said.
Among the students was Dawn Martin’s culinary class at South Forsyth High School.
“All these kids at this age eat with their eyes first,” she said. “But they let them taste test and have an input on what’s on the line.
“As a dietician and working in the classroom and having kids of my own, I just think it’s phenomenal that [the system] really cares about their opinion.”
About 65 percent of Forsyth’s students eat school lunch, Woods said. Every year, new foods are added, mostly based on student feedback from the expo.
In exchange, some less popular menu items are removed.
The decision process is lengthy, with input from all school cafeteria managers.
“They know what the students are eating, what they’re not eating and then they bring the input to us and we look at the menus and we tweak them based on their input,” Woods said.
While the health of food offerings improves annually, the new federal proposal could lead to at least one big change.
“Sodium we have not paid as close attention too,” Woods said. “But first, food manufacturers have to jump on board. They’re going to have to reduce the amount of sodium in the products they sell us. That’s next.”