Eating right — Educators try to put healthier fare on the school lunch menu

Chris DeBlois, left, prepares beans during a nutrition personnel training on healthy eating for the Central Kitsap and Bremerton school districts Sept. 1. Tia Lemke, a third grader at Silverdale Elementary School whose grandmother is a nutrition personnel (not pictured), helps DeBlois.    - Kristin Okinaka/staff photo
Chris DeBlois, left, prepares beans during a nutrition personnel training on healthy eating for the Central Kitsap and Bremerton school districts Sept. 1. Tia Lemke, a third grader at Silverdale Elementary School whose grandmother is a nutrition personnel (not pictured), helps DeBlois.
— image credit: Kristin Okinaka/staff photo

Although some grade school children are notorious for being picky eaters, 8-year-old Bryce Jensen said he likes to eat fruits and vegetables.

“I like broccoli — they’re little trees,” he said last week while playing at the Silverdale Waterfront Park.

But just like many children, when he eats school lunches at Green Mountain Elementary School, he looks for the pizza, popcorn chicken or “mega bites,” which he said are bite-sized pizza pockets.

Last week the Central Kitsap and Bremerton school districts had a training for their nutrition personnel that focused on healthy recipes for school lunches.

Although both districts said they continue to cut fats from school lunches, some parents and students are not satisfied with the options that are offered in the cafeterias.

From 2006 to 2010, the most recent numbers available, one in four children on average in eighth and tenth grades in Kitsap County is overweight or obese.

Nina Jensen, Bryce’s mother, said her son buys lunch at school about half of the time. She doesn’t have him do it for the convenience or because she thinks the food is nutritious. Financially it makes sense, she said.

“It’s cheaper for us to do that. But it is a cop-out,” Jensen said, adding that Bryce has been eligible for reduced lunch in the past.

The full price for elementary school lunch in the Central Kitsap School District is $2.50 with the full price for secondary students a quarter more.

The reduced price for lunch is 40 cents for grades 4 through 12 and free for other grades.

About 48 percent of students enrolled in the district buy or receive school lunches, said Sam Blazer, director of food services for the Central Kitsap School District. He added that about 30 percent of the total enrollment are on reduced price lunch and that the percentage has been increasing.

Jensen has four children, three currently in the school district, and said that although it is cheaper for Bryce to buy lunch at school, she thinks that packing a lunch is always a healthier option.

“They have the salad bar, but I don’t know how often he chooses that,” she said.

Tara Morris has a daughter, Iris, in kindergarten at Armin Jahr Elementary School in the Bremerton School District. Iris being her only child and school only being three days into the year, she isn’t sure what to think of the lunches but suspects they are not the healthiest choice.

“I’ll be packing her lunch so I know what she’s having,” Morris said.

In the Bremerton School District, on average about 2,900 students order school lunch out of an enrollment of about 4,900, said Lisa Johnson, supervisor of child nutrition services for the district.

More than 60 percent of students are eligible and receive reduced lunch, she said.

Throughout districts, Johnson said that gradual changes have been made including lowering fat and sodium and adding more fruits and vegetables into the meals.

The meal pattern

The Bremerton School District plans to implement “the meal pattern,” a Department of Agriculture program, sometime this school year, she said. The program outlines specific food components that children should consume including that breads should be made from whole-grain or enriched meal or flour.

“Nutrition is really important. We want to introduce them to new types of food,” Johnson said. She gave the example of change in that years ago, children were not exposed to kiwis and now schools have fruits available such as pluots and more than one variety of apple.

Because some parents rely on the school lunches to be healthy, both districts say they are continuously working on improvements.

“We can help [lunch] be more nutritious and offer choices. We need to do our part,” said Blazer.

The Central Kitsap School District applied for a Carol M. White Physical Education Program grant through SPARK, a public health organization of San Diego State University Research Foundation. Blazer acknowledged the national trend of childhood obesity and said that the district is trying to find creative ways to combat the issue. The district is waiting to find out if it will receive the physical education program grant, he added.

Both the Central Kitsap and Bremerton school districts worked with local chef Chris Plemmons last Thursday learning about how to prepare healthier meals and were introduced to items like quinoa — a grain — being a good alternative for vegans.

Plemmons, a culinary arts professor at Olympic College, was invited to the White House last year as part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative to decrease childhood obesity.

He’s now working with schools to promote healthier cooking.

“We need to instill eating habits that they are going to have the rest of their lives,” Plemmons said of children so that they do not develop poor eating habits that could lead to obesity or being overweight.

Anna Pastor, a sixth grader at Silver Ridge Elementary School, said her friend has organized a group of students to discuss with the school board of the Central Kitsap School District the importance of making more drastic changes to school lunches. Anna is supporting this effort.

“The school lunches are really unhealthy,” she said, adding that with the prominence of obesity, changes need to be made at the schools to break the chain of bad eating habits.

Obesity problem

In 2006, 26.5 percent of eighth graders in Kitsap County were overweight or obese based on self-reported height and weight information to the Washington State Healthy Youth Survey.

In the same year, 25.2 percent of eighth graders were reported as overweight or obese. Height and weight are used to calculate body mass index and youth above the 85th percentile for BMI by age and gender are considered overweight or obese, according to the Kitsap County Health District.

There are no statistical trends over time on obesity data for eighth or 10th graders in Kitsap County, said Siri Kushner, an epidemiologist with the health district. Overweight or obese eighth graders in the county were at 29.3 percent in 2008 and at 26.4 percent in 2010, according to the survey. Overweight or obese 10th graders were at 22.4 percent in 2008 and at 25.5 percent in 2010.

“Youth obesity is a concern,” said Kushner, adding that it is “reassuring” that there are no current increasing trends and that the county’s numbers are not that different from the state’s count. In the state, 26.6 percent of eighth graders and 24.5 percent of 10th graders were overweight or obese in 2010.

“There could be a predisposition to follow the behaviors modeled by their parents,” Kushner said, adding that this could be a negative thing if the parents are not healthy eaters and are not active.

Kate Lynch, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Health, said that there is no data showing an increase trend in overweight or obese high school students in the state. She added that the state is limited to the healthy youth survey and since it is self-reported by students, it may not include all incidents.

There is no data showing a decrease either.

Opposite to local numbers, the national trend shows childhood obesity increasing.

Approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19, are obese according to 2007 to 2008 data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. From 1976 to 1980, the prevalence of obesity was at 5.5 percent for the same age group nationally.

Since 1980, obesity in youth and adolescents have more than tripled.

Lynch said the department’s partnership with different organizations and public instruction has aided in addressing childhood obesity in the state but that more can always be done.

“We need to change the environment that our kids are in,” Lynch said, giving the example that families can try to walk more than rely on driving to and from the school bus stop.

The HealthierUS School Challenge is a national certification through the Department of Agriculture, that is voluntary, and recognizes schools and districts that create healthier environments through nutrition and physical activity, said Leannne Eko, team nutrition grant coordinator with the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The challenge was created in 2004 and in February 2010, it was incorporated into the “Let’s Move!” initiative, which has added monetary incentives to the challenge program.

And although there are programs and grants for the districts to take part in to promote healthy living in order to decrease childhood obesity, Anna wants to see the changes now.

“We’re just trying to bring it up. There are some kids that don’t have a choice and have to buy it,” she said of school lunches.

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