Cynthia Ruffin, director of Child Nutrition Programs at St. Charles Parish Public Schools, sat at a table in the Hahnville High School cafeteria.
The smells of a variety of foods wafted from the lunchroomís five service counters. In only a few moments the buzzer would go off and hungry students would enter the lunchroom from all angles. While students will get to choose most of the food they eat, they will be forced to pick at least one fruit or vegetable.
This year, new nutrition standards aimed at promoting healthy eating amongst the student population require students to take a vegetable or fruit with their lunch. The program, called Eat Smart, began this fall and hopes to make headway in Louisiana, which is the second most obese state in the nation.
Ruffin said that after initiating the new program they had to monitor students and send them back to the lunch stations to get a vegetable or fruit. Even then, 50 percent of the vegetables ended up in the trash. Now Ruffin said the students have gotten more used to the idea and the rate of those throwing away the vegetables has gone down to 20 percent.
Students at the school said their peers have noticed the change.
Senior Zachary Reyna said he sees students try to get away without picking up the vegetables.
"Iíve heard people complain about it," Reyna said. "I think it is a step, but it is kind of pointless because a lot of kids get it and then they just donít eat it anyway."
Reyna admitted that even though he does not always like the vegetable that comes with his meal he always eats it.
"It fills me up," he said.
Senior Heather Durapau said she thinks students are reacting more to the change itself than the fact they have to get a vegetable.
"They try to make a big deal out of it, but it is not a big deal," Durapau said.
Included in the Eat Smart program is a dietary limit of 850 calories for high school students and less for younger students. Both Reyna and Durapau said they eat larger portions at home. However, Reyna admits the type of foods offered at the school are probably healthier.
Principal Ken Oertling said the new requirements are particularly important for students on the free and reduced lunch program.
"For some of our kids this breakfast and lunch we provide are the only meals they get for the day," Oertling said. "So itís very important."
Ruffin said learning to eat healthy is a nationwide concern and problem and not about money, but about choices.
"Itís even more so for the low income, but in general Iíd say its a problem for all of us," Ruffin said. "Even our students who are full price still need to learn how to eat healthy."
Since Ruffin took over 12 years ago she has tried to focus on making meals more healthy for students by serving more lean meats, green leafy vegetables, colorful vegetables with more vitamins and minerals in them, fruits with high amounts of vitamin C and skim milk instead of whole milk.
Ruffin said part of her goal and the goal of the program is to engage students in thinking about what they are eating and how it affects their overall health. For example, throughout "National School Lunch Week" Ruffin comes up with meals with attached slogans on eating healthy.
"Weíve decided we are going to go with a baked potato wedge with a low fat cheese sauce and go with the slogan Ďthank God itís fry-dayí. Got it?" Ruffin said. "So we have something cute for everyday. ĎDonít be chicken, eat healthy.í It will be a chicken on the menu, a new chicken dish they have not had before."
Ruffin said she will keep changing the menu at the school to offer healthier options a little at a time and that in the long run her hope is students will be making healthier options for themselves rather than having the school force them to pick up a piece of fruit or vegetable.
"I think of obesity just like Michelle Obama says," Ruffin said. "We didnít become obese as a nation overnight, it took 20 years. Itís going to take another 20 years for us to slowly get out of it."
|Students eating lunch at St. Charles Parish Public Schools must choose a vegetable or fruit at lunch. The program, called Eat Smart, began this fall and hopes to make headway in Louisiana, which is the second most obese state in the nation.|