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Healthy eating top priority

Students at Ardrey Kell High School have adjusted well to new federal nutrition standards implemented this year in the school’s cafeteria, Marilyn Johnson, Ardrey Kell’s cafeteria manager, said.

With healthier, more well-balanced meals, Ardrey Kell is just one school across Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the nation working to provide students all the nutrition they need to succeed in school. With the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act resulting from Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to tackle childhood obesity, the U.S. Department of Agriculture revamped regulations to include age-appropriate calorie limits, larger servings of fruits and vegetables, wider varieties of vegetables, fat-free and 1 percent milk, more whole grains and less sodium. The changes went into effect this school year.

“The biggest challenge is they have implemented a calorie range for different age groups and there is now a minimum and maximum for the grains,” Amy Harkey, assistant school nutrition services director, said. “It’s a challenge in menu planning.”

School lunches include protein, grains, milk, vegetables and fruit. This year, CMS child nutrition services added an extra vegetable and fruit to the lunch of older students with higher calorie needs.

“High schools have a higher calorie range so it’s not as sticky in terms of planning – they require more calories,” she said.

This year, elementary and middle school students are given both a serving of fruit and a serving of vegetables, where as at the high school level, students have the option for two servings of fruit and two servings of vegetables.

“The basic change is to encourage the students to eat a lot more fruit and vegetables,” Johnson said about the new regulations. “At the high school level, the can actually have two fruits and two vegetables – it’s actually been an increase of food for our students.”

While the new calorie regulations have caused concern in other parts of the country, here in CMS, both Johnson and Harkey say the proportions and healthier options are helping kids and so far they haven’t heard concerns.

“We’ve not really encountered (proportion issues) except at the sports level. USDA meals are designed to meet the requirements of the majority of students, not just athletes,” Harkey said. “But by encouraging students and requiring them to take a fruit or vegetable, I think they’ll have more satisfaction of nutrition and end up feeling fuller.”

Johnson, who has worked for CMS for 15 years now, said she thinks the changes are really creating excitement about healthy eating with not only new food regulations, but in CMS new logos and advertising encouraging students to make healthier choices on their own. Lunchrooms across the district are sporting graphics with color wedges representing proper meal selections.

“CMS has always been at the forefront of making healthy choices. We’re really working to train our staff to market the food to students, encouraging them to take choices because they are included in the meal,” she said. “I think our merchandising is helping students become aware of the different food groups, too.”

Overall, both Harkey and Johnson say the changes are a positive move for CMS and although it can sometimes be challenging, they are excited about more improvements to come.

“I think it’s going to be one of those things that’s going to evolve because there haven’t been many changes to the meal programs in years,” Johnson said. “But now, they’ve been changed so drastically, it’s going to take some time to adjust. It’s going to be trial and error – finding a balance where we can teach kids healthy eating, but make it affordable for students to do it.”

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