By Kyle LoJacono
New national food standards for public schools may be causing some school districts to radically change their menu options, but Pasco County students have already been sitting down to healthy choices for years.
“We first had bottled water and salads at lunch 10 years ago,” said Emily Mark, one of three dietitians with Pasco County School’s Food and Nutrition Services Department. “We have four or five fruit and vegetable options each day. When I came to the district about eight years ago, I was amazed because here it’s not like the stereotypical school nutrition department.”
Food nutrition manager Suellen Smith has been at Zephyrhills High for 11 years and worked at Pasco High for 11 years before that. She said it is very important for her school to offer nutritious food because some of the children do not get a lot to eat at home.
“We are at more than 55 percent of our kids on free or reduced priced lunches,” Smith said. “Fortunately I’m blessed to have people who work for me who love what they do and the kids here.”
The new guidelines were released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in January and called for, among other things, significant reductions in fats, sugar and salt while increasing whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said his department understands the financial and operation implications of the new rules are great, but thinks the positives outweigh the negatives.
“Raising a healthier generation of kids will require hard work and a commitment of a host of partners,” Vilsack wrote in an e-mail. “We understand that these improved meal standards may present challenges for some school districts, but the new law provides important new resources, technical assistance and flexibility to help schools raise the bar for our kids.”
The new rules start going into place for the 2011-12 school year and will slowly take effect during the next 10 years, but Pasco will not have to make any changes in many areas.
Stephanie Packroll, the department’s nutrition specialist, said Pasco already uses at least 50 percent whole grain flours when making breads, pizza crusts and other starches. The cookies and other sweets also meet the standards for sugar and fat and they also offer fresh fruits and vegetables.
In some cases, Pasco has been doing more than required in the new law.
“Our three dietitians look at our menus every week and analyze the nutrition,” Mark said. “Parents and students can check online each week and see the nutrition of the menu and make choices based on that.”
Mark said the county has always looked to upgrade the nutrition for the students, even if it costs a little more.
“We feed about 60,000 students each day and because the price of fresh fruits and vegetables change all the time, it usually costs more to give them the healthy options,” Mark said. “… We also got rid of a large chocolate chip cookie about four years ago that was a big money maker, but after reviewing it and what we’re trying to do with the department, we decided it wasn’t the best thing to have.”
There is one hurdle that will not be as easy. The reduction in salt is something the county is not already meeting, but it is more a factor of being able to get low-sodium options.
“It’s a 10-year plan and the food industry isn’t ready yet,” Mark said. “We are constantly looking for better choices for the kids, but right now this is the greatest challenge. The industry will adjust and we’ll be able to meet the guidelines.”
While making the food healthy is important, Mark said it also has to taste good. To ensure this, the department has frequent tasting of current menu items at the schools and of new options. The most recent testing was at Zephyrhills, where the students sampled chicken patties, pulled pork and other items that may soon be finding their way onto Pasco school menus.
“The students really liked the chicken patties and the pulled pork was good too,” Mark said.
Another tasting was during the Great American Teach-in this year, when Mark visited her daughter Sydney’s second-grade class at Pine View Elementary.
“I still get letters from Sydney’s class with suggestions,” Mark said. “The one I see the most is spaghetti tacos. We’re actually looking at giving it a try in tasting sometime soon.”
People can also suggest new menu options at the department’s website, www.pasco.k12.fl.us/nutrition.
Vegetarians have it easy in Pasco schools
Two years ago, Pasco County School’s Food and Nutrition Services Department was named in the top-five school districts in American for vegetarian food options.
The award was given by peta2, the youth branch of PETA, and it validates something the department strives for.
“We want to give our students choices and good choices,” said Emily Mark, a dietitian in the department. “We always have vegetarian options for the kids above and beyond just a salad and apple for them to eat.”
Mark said almost every food option can be made as a vegetarian alternative, including hamburgers, chicken nuggets and corndogs.
“We do have a variety of salads and sides of fruits and vegetables each day for the kids,” Mark said. “We weren’t even expecting the award, but we weren’t really surprised either because we do everything we can to give the kids options for their lunches.”
Mark said the increase in vegetarian items started many years ago.
“We have a very diverse student population and there was a demand for vegetarian options,” Mark said. “Not just food that didn’t have meat, but vegetarian meals. We always do what we can to accommodate people and I think we’ve done a good job with it.”
One of the vegetarian options is so popular, Mark hesitated to say that it was meatless.
“Our barbecued sandwich, I mean our regular barbecued sandwich is vegetarian,” Mark said. “It is one of our most popular items and I don’t think most of the students know it is vegetarian. We put a lot of time into making it taste good and I think it’s better than any barbecued meat sandwich out there.”
For more information on vegetarian options in Pasco, visit www.pasco.k12.fl.us/nutrition.