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MCPS Says It’s Doing A Lot To Make School Menus Healthier

By Aaron Kraut

Monday - 3/17/2014, 10:15am  ET

Photo via Real Food for Kids-MontgomeryIn response to a push for more scratch-cooked meals and unlimited fruits and vegetables in cafeterias, MCPS says it already is doing a lot to make school menus healthier.

But cost concerns and the “misconception” that MCPS menu items such as pizza and hot dogs are junk food mean large-scale changes recommended by Real Food for Kids-Montgomery are unlikely.

Those recommendations got support from County Councilmembers George Leventhal and Craig Rice last week. The two will lead a discussion of healthier food options in MCPS in a Thursday hearing with Superintendent Joshua Starr, Division of Food and Nutrition Services Director Marla Caplon and Board of Education members Shirley Brandman and Patricia O’Neill.

On Friday, Starr penned a letter to Leventhal and Rice explaining why MCPS feels some of the recommendations aren’t feasible.

On the idea of adding more scratch-cooked food (or menu items that don’t use processed and pre-packaged ingredients) MCPS said food preparation at its Central Production Facility is key to being able to afford a food program for such a large school system:

Menus planned and meals served by DFNS (Division of Food and Nutrition Services) exceed the USDA guidelines and are intended to provide a variety of menu items that are acceptable to a diverse student population. Choices on the menus must be appealing to students and also must be affordable.

The Central Production Facility was built in 1995 and was designed to provide nutritious meals with standardized quality meeting stringent food safety standards, while controlling labor costs. Centralizing the food preparation provides cost avoidance in utilities, space, equipment, and services associated with operating fully functioning kitchens in schools. Many items prepared in the Central Production Facility are from scratch, including entree salads, soups, salad dressings, casseroles, several entree items, and baked poultry items.

MCPS officials again took umbrage to Real Food for Kids’ labeling of items such as double-stuffed pizza as fast food:

The terminology of “junk food” used by the Real Food for Kids-Montgomery is subjective. There is a misconception that food items served in schools are the same as what would be found in a commercial restaurant. MCPS has specific standards for food items that limit the fat and sodium content. For example, pizza served in MCPS has a whole grain crust and is low in sodium and fat.

Hot dogs, served on a whole grain bun, are a turkey product to reduce the fat content. Hamburgers are low in fat and sodium and are served on whole grain buns. Chicken nuggets have a whole grain breading and are baked, not fried.

The Board of Education is scheduled to discuss the school meals program in June, a discussion that will include the cost of making changes to the program.

Starr said MCPS has added $516,000 to the DFNS budget to include whole grains in meals and $560,000 to make more fruits and vegetables available.

As for the idea of a salad bar in each school that would provide unlimited fruits and vegetables, MCPS said it already provides fresh fruits and vegetables in each lunch line. It also cited a federal law that requires school meals have a minimum and maximum number of calories:

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 stipulates that meals must have a minimum and maximum number of calories. Permitting students to take unlimited quantities of fruits and vegetables would put us out of compliance for the caloric requirements and does not support the importance of a balanced meal with appropriate serving sizes.

The joint Council Health and Human Services and Education Committee hearing is set for 10 a.m. Thursday in Rockville.

Photo via Real Food for Kids-Montgomery