By MIKE SCHNEIDER
Associated Press Writer
Kelly Ferrer no longer gets the waffles, pancakes and sugar cereals that she loved eating for breakfast last year in her school cafeteria. This year, instead, she is served whole-wheat bread, lowfat cheese and fruit.
Does she like it? No.
“I want to go back to the old menu,” said the fourth-grader at Mill Creek Elementary School. “We had better food last year.”
Kelly´s is one of six schools in this Orlando suburb taking part in a study by a research center founded by Dr. Arthur Agatston, the author of “The South Beach Diet.”
The goal of the study is to figure out whether school cafeterias are capable of serving more nutritious food, whether kids will eat it and whether their health will improve.
The program underscores growing concerns across the nation about childhood obesity. Government data suggest about 15 percent of U.S. youngsters are severely overweight or obese, a problem that may lead to diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Some state surveys indicate the obesity rate could be higher.
“We´re not putting the children on the South Beach Diet,” said Danielle Hollar, deputy director of research at the Agatston Research Institute. “We´re trying to provide healthier options for these children, and in the long run we hope they learn to eat healthier and incorporate that into their daily living.”
Although the 3,000 students in the study haven´t been put on the low-carb diet per se, many of the diet´s guiding principles have been incorporated into school menus.
White bread has been stricken and replaced with whole-wheat. White potatoes were subbed with sweet potatoes. French fries were abolished. Grilled chicken replaced breaded chicken. Fruits serve as dessert.
Students at the beginning of the school year were weighed, their height measured and their blood pressure and pulse recorded. Those same measurements will be taken in April. The institute has paid for the $10,000 extra cost. Hollar said the obesity rate at the school hadn´t been calculated.
The new menus were “a little bit slow catching on, but now the students seem to be enjoying the meals,” said Jean Palmore, food service director for the Osceola County School District. Four of the schools have changed their menus and the other two are being used as controls with unchanged menus.
It was rough going at first. As many as half of the students at the test schools didn´t eat their lunches at the beginning of the year. Now just 15 percent are in that category after tweaks to the menu and weeks of exposure.
“We tried a veggie burger, but that was not a popular thing,” Palmore said. “We had some problems with breakfast because traditionally we have pancakes and waffles and bagels. Those kids can´t have any of those now.”
On a recent day, the difference in menus between a test school and control school was apparent. While Pleasant Hill Elementary School, a control school, served onion rings as a side dish with its choice of chicken or egg salad, Mill Creek Elementary School served veggie sticks with dip.
“They´re trying some other foods that they haven´t tried before,” said Laurel Hagood, dean of Mill Creek Elementary School, where 65 percent of the 938 students get free or reduced-price lunches.
Besides initial student finickiness, the biggest obstacle has been access to healthier ingredients. The school district is part of a buying group with other districts that have a long-term contract with a food distributor. Most schools, for example, aren´t ordering whole-wheat pasta.
In addition, the shelf life of fresh fruits and vegetables is shorter than frozen or canned items, making it difficult sometimes to buy in bulk.
“Produce is more expensive, perishable and you don´t get the yield on those items that you get from canned items,” Palmore said.
Food distributors should respond to demand for fruits, vegetables and whole grains in school diets, said Lynn Parker, director of child nutrition programs at the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based public interest group.
Some school districts around the nation have started farm-to-school programs that rely on local growers. While many schools have been lowering the fat content and offering more fruits and vegetables, they still have a way to go, Parker said.
“There is a strong interest on the part of many schools to do better and I think that´s because of pressure from parents,” Parker said. “Many parents across the country are trying to make changes in their own meals at home and are concerned about childhood obesity and having well-nourished children and preventing chronic diseases later in life.”