Kids Have A Say In Louisville's School Lunch Menu

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New guidelines announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday call for less fat and more fruits in school lunches. In Louisville, Kentucky, the Jefferson County School District lets students evaluate its healthy food offerings.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The federal government has come out with its new standards for school meals - less fat, less salt, less sugar and more fruits, grains and vegetables. Devin Katayama from member station WFPL reports on how the Louisville, Kentucky school district is trying to comply with the guidelines and satisfy student tastes.

DEVIN KATAYAMA, BYLINE: Meet fourth grade food critic Jackson Schleff.

JACKSON SCHLEFF: With the spaghetti sauce and the spaghetti, I'd say it does need a little more chunks of vegetable, ones that you can see fairly well.

KATAYAMA: He's reviewing that school cafeteria standby - spaghetti - but it's spaghetti with healthier ingredients and less salt. Jackson is one of eight students on the nutrition advisory council for Jefferson County public schools. The student group meets four times a year to taste new breakfast and lunch meals, and a bad review from this group is enough to block a new recipe from being served to their schoolmates throughout Louisville, Kentucky. Julia Boucher is the district's nutrition director. She says having students evaluate changes to the menu has already improved school nutrition. But the problem with the way kids eat, she says, extends beyond the school cafeteria.

JULIA BOUCHER: It's not just schools that have to change what they're doing, it's our entire community, everyone. Because I can serve them healthy food and I can only offer healthy choices - whoever defines what that is - because healthy choices are different for different people. But if the kids don't eat it, what have I accomplished?

KATAYAMA: The federal guidelines announced yesterday call for a gradual reduction in sodium in school meals. Boucher says even that gradual reduction will be hard to achieve.

BOUCHER: American palates are so accustomed to high sodium content that when you lower sodium, students don't like it as much.

KATAYAMA: And what students don't like they won't eat. To help introduce students to a variety of foods that are healthy and tasty, Jefferson County brought in a new chef, Jim Whaley.

JIM WHALEY: These are some locally sourced apples and I'm dehydrating these, and we're going to take these to some of the fresh fruit and vegetable schools and let the students sample another way to eat fresh fruits.

KATAYAMA: Of course this isn't the only school district promoting healthy eating and trying to win student approval. The Los Angeles Unified School District recently revamped its menu and made it dramatically healthier. Schools offer meals like vegetable curry and lentil and brown rice cutlets. But thousands of students stopped eating school lunches and gave a thumbs down to many of the new dishes. It's Jim Whaley's job to figure out the best balance between flavor, nutritional value and the operational demands of serving 90,000 meals daily. It's not easy. For now, there are still some less-healthful options on the school menu. And according to our 10-year-old critic, Jackson Schleff, there's no shortage of demand.

JACKSON SCHLEFF: The more popular items that I see are in the morning, would be the cinnamon rolls, and during the lunchtime it would be the pizza or the chicken nuggets.

KATAYAMA: Whaley insists that changing the culinary culture of the cafeteria is possible. He's confident the new spaghetti sauce he's working on, locally sourced, low in sodium and rich in vegetables, will eventually win over his grade school diners. It just may take a while. For NPR News, I'm Devin Katayama in Louisville.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Nutrition experts seem to agree, the new lunch regulations are great as far as they're concerned but certainly not perfect.

MONTAGNE: For one thing, Congress blocked an effort to limit how often kids are served starchy foods like French fries.

INSKEEP: Maybe the healthiest option is simply to bring a lunch. So we asked listeners on Facebook what kids are carrying in their lunchboxes, and we heard everything from lentil soup to leftovers of mustard-crusted lamb.

MONTAGNE: Although after hearing all that variety, it was almost reassuring to learn that many kids still carry in a sandwich, like peanut butter and jelly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

FRED PENNER: (Singing) Sandwiches are beautiful, sandwiches are fine. I like sandwiches, I eat them all the time. I eat them for my supper and I eat them for my lunch. If I had 100 sandwiches, I'd eat them all at once. I'm roaming and...

MONTAGNE: It's NPR News.

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