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Hot lunch on a diet: Making sure kids eat healthy

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MADISON (WKOW) -- We all want our children to be healthy, but we can't watch every little thing they eat, especially when they're at school. You can pack a healthy lunch or opt for the school lunches, which are healthier now because districts have to follow the new federal nutrition guidelines. 

Those new rules went into effect last school year, and many students are taking advantage. But a lot of schools are seeing a drop in participation for the school lunch program. 

We sat down with some middle school students recently at Glacier Creek Middle School in Cross Plains. They told us since they now have more options, many of them always get a school lunch because they can always find something they like. Most don't eat everything on their tray, that's only because they don't have enough time for lunch. They also tell us the lunches taste better than they have in the past.

For many students, it took awhile to get used to the new rules. They now have to eat a fruit or vegetable and will get low-fat or skim milk. Calories have been reduced and so has sodium. That may be one reason many local school districts have seen a drop in participation. Susan Peterman, Coordinator for School Nutrition for Middleton-Cross Plains School District, says the drop they've seen has been alarming. "I think there's a disconnect between what healthy children should be eating and what they eat at home. So when they arrive in my lunch line, they recognize fast food, chicken nuggets and pizza. There's a cultural piece and still an economic piece."

Of the local school districts who got back to us for this story, most have seen a drop in the number of students who buy the school lunch. Middleton-Cross Plains says it started the 09-10 school year at 62% of total enrollment served each day and as they entered the 13-14 school year, the participation level was at 54%. Peterman says it's likely about 5 percent of that is due to the fruit and vegetable requirement.

The Oregon School District has also seen a significant decrease in participation. Food Service Director Robyn Wood says currently, they have about 54% of students participating, compared to last year, which was 65%. Wood says the fruit and vegetable requirement is probably the biggest factor for them too. "If they don't take one, they can still eat their lunch without it, but we can't count it as a (reimbursable) meal. Then we have to charge them a la carte and that's more expensive for them."

Wood says sometimes students will take the fruit or vegetable, but won't eat it. "It's the same with the milk. They don't like the skim milk."

In the Monona Grove School District, participation also went down, about six percent. School Nutrition Coordinator Dee Matthys says the participation level was about 56% in the '11-'12 school year and about 50% in '12-'13. Most of the decrease is at the elementary level. Matthys says, "Many parents say their kids don't want to wait in line and they don't have enough time to eat." Monona Grove had to raised prices, and that could be a factor in participation.

Verona Area schools has also seen a decrease the past three years. Cindra Magli, the Food Service Director, says participation is down about 3% for the lunch program. Magli says the breakfast program saw an increase, and that could be thanks to a breakfast program in the classroom for elementary students. Overall participation in Verona schools is currently about 60%.

Magli says they've also had to increase prices over the last three years, so that might have impacted participation levels.

The Madison Metropolitan School District says its participation levels went up the first year the new guidelines took effect. The school lunch program increased 12% from October 2011 to October 2012 and the breakfast program went up 3.7%. During that time, total students approved for free and reduced meals decreased by one percent.

From October 2012 to October of 2013, Madison's numbers went down 2.8% for breakfast and 4.3% for lunch. The total number of students approved for free and reduced meals also decreased 1.8%. 

MMSD Food & Nutrition Director Steve Youngbauer says they started working on the new standards ahead of time to try and increase participation. They also added more choices each day for students. "We get a lot of comments from students and parents that they like the choice. it encourages participation and reduces waste overall in the district because if kids select that entree, there's a much better chance they're going to eat that entree."

In fact, most school districts give students more than one option each day for lunch now, and the higher the grade level, the more options they get. That's probably helped participation, since students can usually find something they like.

Many of the school districts plan to do surveys this year to see what parents and students think. While increased prices and the fruit and vegetable requirement may be part of the problem, some students and their parents simply like what's in their sack lunch better.

Whether parents choose the school lunch or pack one for their child, getting them to eat the healthy stuff can be a struggle. Tara Larowe is mom to Jack and Eva and is a clinical nutritionist with UW Health. She says part of getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables is making "foreign" foods friendly. Even her children have gone through picky stages, but she says the best advice she can give is never give up on a healthy food. "There's a lot of research now that says kids, it takes them eight to ten, up to 20 times of you introducing them to a new food for them to accept it."

A few more tips from this expert mom:
 - Make fruits and vegetables easily accessible. Take a few minutes each week to cut them up and put them into one large container that stays in the fridge.
 - Don't reward children with dessert if they eat their vegetables. That tells them the healthy food is less appealing, and it's counter-productive anyway.
 - Sit down at the dinner table!

While school districts want students to at least try the school lunch program, some parents know it's easier, cheaper or healthier for their kids to bring a sack lunch. Here are links to some of the area school districts' lunch menus and prices to help your family make that decision:



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