Our Views: Janesville schools serving more nutrition

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

In Tuesday's Gazette, columnist Kathleen Parker suggested that Michelle Obama's school nutrition program is a well-intentioned disaster.

Parker says the national School Nutrition Association supported nutrition standards enacted in 2010 but now wants changes. Many school districts have borrowed from other educational programs to buy nutritional foods that tend to cost more. Many students hate the food and trash so much that school disposal costs have risen.

Parents and taxpayers should appreciate that Jim Degan, Janesville School District manager of food services, sees a different scene here.

Last month, Degan announced that the Smart Snacks program will start July 1. It will ensure that food sold in vending machines, PTA bake sales and club fundraisers meets federal limits on sugar, fat, sodium and calories. Local PTAs will get primers at a June 28 workshop.

That won't prevent kids from bringing birthday treats loaded with sugar and calories. Federal guidelines don't cover treats. Yet it wouldn't hurt the district, perhaps using PTA help, to send home healthier treat recipes.

Janesville schools serve more than 9,000 breakfasts and lunches per day. Degan has seen little change in the percentage of kids eating school-prepared meals. Costs have been manageable.

“We take great care in the way we purchase things, and we're also trying to make sure we eliminate as much waste as possible to control food costs,” Degan told The Gazette. “Our food costs as a district haven't increased dramatically in the last few years. What we're seeing is similar to what you see going to the grocery store year to year.”

Degan, president of the School Nutrition Association of Wisconsin, spends much time observing lunch periods in Janesville. He notes that if young students spend too much of a 20-minute lunch standing in line, they won't have time to eat fruits and vegetables, which take longer to down. Sometimes, he acknowledges, kids in kindergarten through second grade get too much food. Past that level, most kids eat what they take, he says.

Elementary students choose one of two entrées daily. Middle school students get five choices. At Craig and Parker high schools, food courts offer 18 or 19 choices. All meet nutrition guidelines.

The key, Degan says, is offering instead of serving.

“The regulations are pretty clear. Offer all of these things to students, but they don't have to take everything. If students take what they're going to eat, you help control waste.”

Congressional Republicans want to relax the standards. Degan sees no need for flexibility in Janesville.

“I sympathize with people across the country,” he said. “A lot of people have had difficulty. They need to be proactive. Change is good for the children, and that's our biggest concern … the kids.”

Concern is justified. A new report adds weight to our obesity epidemic. The number of obese or overweight people worldwide has topped 2.1 billion, up from 875 million in 1980, says the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Washington. People blame their genes or suggest exercise is too big a burden. They blame their busy lives for poor nutrition.

As Parker suggests, quality nutrition starts at home. To keep our “little human pillows” from growing up and driving health costs higher even faster, however, schools can play vital educational roles. That starts in school kitchens, regardless of whether Congress rolls back nutrition standards.

In Janesville, the lessons are well underway.

Gazette editorials express the views of the newspaper's editorial board. Readers are encouraged to comment on editorials through letters to the editor.

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