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Wednesday, Aug 15 2012 11:04 PM

Changes in cafeteria menus as vital as classroom innovation

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    Michelle McLean

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By MICHELLE McLEAN

After 15 years working as a public school administrator in Kern County, my summers have fallen into a predictable pattern. I know what I have to do to prepare for the upcoming school year -- make sure that every student has a classroom and every classroom has a teacher, ensure that the schools are in safe condition, that textbooks have been ordered, and that the curriculum is set.

Last summer, I focused on all of the above, as well as on Breakfast in the Classroom and serving less chocolate milk, but this summer I've had something new on my plate. It didn't involve curriculum, or Breakfast in the Classroom, but it will have a huge impact in the classroom. It didn't involve school infrastructure, but it will go a long way toward keeping children healthy throughout the year. It didn't involve instruction, but it will dramatically change one of the most important periods of the day.

This summer, I got to focus on lunch.

California public schools serve 810 million meals to children every year, and I'm responsible for 800,000 of these meals. New federal government nutritional standards for school meals go into effect this year, and, because of these new guidelines, school meals and snacks will be healthier and more nutritious than ever before.

The new school meal guidelines, for the first time, reflect what we've known for years -- that real food matters. Ketchup isn't a vegetable and heavily processed junk food doesn't help children learn, grow or succeed. For many children in our district, throughout Kern County, our state, and all across our country, school meals provide a majority of the daily nutrition that helps a child grow, and that's why I'm so excited about the transformation we're going to see in our cafeterias, classrooms and lunchrooms this year.

One of the best things about the new guidelines is that they're just that -- guidelines. These guidelines give every school district the leeway to implement them in ways that make sense for each individual district. Students in the Arvin Union School District will continue to eat things they already know and like. Lunches will still include pizza, french fries and hamburgers, and our students still may drink chocolate milk on Fridays -- it's just that now our students will be choosing and eating more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and eating even healthier versions of what we've been able to serve in the past.

The new lunches are a big deal. These nutritional changes aren't just about the food that ends up on a cafeteria tray, they're a whole new way of looking at the way we instill good, healthful habits and build stronger communities.

Our district is also embedding nutrition education in our regular classrooms, our after-school programs and our parent education classes and volunteer centers because we know that students and parents who learn about healthier choices at school will bring those choices home by passing them on to their families. We are continuing to focus on physical education and structured recess across our district, too. I believe that when we change the way our children move, play and eat at school, we are helping build a brighter future for our city, county, state and country.

The Arvin Union School District, like most other school districts across the state, are struggling to make ends meet financially due to the ongoing and drastic budget cuts of the past few years. We are so excited that our district was just one of six school districts in Kern County to receive a California Fresh Fruits and Vegetables grant of just more than $120,000. This grant provides additional funding that we use to provide our students with fresh fruits and vegetables as healthy snacks throughout the day, and we focus on buying local produce from local farmers whenever possible.

Quite simply, healthful school meals and snacks lead to healthier children -- less diabetes, less obesity, less high blood pressure and less money spent treating the symptoms of all of these diseases. Healthy children learn better, healthy children miss less school because of sickness, and I know that healthy children accomplish more both now and later on in life. Healthier children live longer, happier, more productive lives, and that's why I think we all benefit from these changes.

Michelle McLean, Ed.D., is superintendent of the Arvin Union School District.

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