EDUCATION

School Lunches Get Healthier for Students

Lunchtime in Neptune High School is a bit different this year — at the check-out line students now are being told they have to take a fruit or vegetable with their meal. The change is part of the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which took effect this year.

“The portion sizes for protein and starches have been reduced,” explained Peter Bartlett, Neptune Township School District assistant business administrator. “Also the nutritional requirements increased the predominance of whole grain products, they reduce sodium, they reduce fat.”

The federal program, spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama, was designed to increase healthier diets while combating the nation’s obesity rates. Nearly one out of four New Jersey adults are obese. And the Garden State has the highest obesity rate in the country among low income children ages 2 to 5 at 17.3 percent. More than 30 percent of New Jersey children ages 10 to 17 are overweight or obese.

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“It is important that many of these choices do start at home and that parents are introducing these items to children at the homes,” New Jersey Department of Agriculture Director of the Division of Food and Nutrition Rose Tricario said. “It is an entire school community effort that’s going to help us implement the new meal patterns and get the children to begin to make healthier choices and lead healthier lifestyles.”

Schools will receive an additional 6 cents per meal in federal funding after their menus are certified by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. Bartlett says the new requirements are driving up food costs.

“Fresh fruits and vegetables are more costly and now it’s possible for a student to take that item, because we must make them take it, and then they can throw it away, so we anticipate that there will be some increase in the amount of food waste.” he said.

That’s something 15-year-old Joshua Agbozo notices at his cafeteria table. “Well I guess it’s a little bit more healthy, but a lot of people don’t eat the fruit that they take,” he said.

Other students are happy with the healthier additions.

“I really like it,” said student Jasmine Williams. “A lot of people always eat junk food and all that. I guess it really helps to maintain a healthy diet.”

Max McKeon agreed. “A lot of kids don’t know how to eat right so I think it’s good that the school forces them to eat right by giving them fruits.”

Bartlett said schools are partly responsible for ensuring children get information to keep them as healthy as possible. “We’re a piece of a puzzle, and we’re glad to be a piece of that puzzle and it’s going to have to over time be integrated with curriculum and other efforts that overall will change the nutritional direction of our country a little bit,” he said.

Bartlett says the Neptune School District is always experimenting with meal options and now that the new guidelines are in effect, they can focus on exploring and expanding other meal choices for students.

Lauren Wanko reports from Neptune Township.