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UCPS school lunches have come a long way - as evidenced by award

Child Nutrition Director Denise Lamar is presented a plaque after UCPS Child Nutrition won the District of Excellence in School Nutrition. She was presented the plaque by Board of Education Chairman John Collins during a recent Board of Education meeting.

The school lunches that your parents remember, lunches from even five or 10 years ago, are a far cry from what students are being offered today.

Nothing brings this point closer to home than the recent recognition given the Union County Public Schools’ Child Nutrition Program, which was awarded the District of Excellence Distinction by the School Nutrition Association.

“It shows the caliber of program that we have,” said Child Nutrition Director Denise Lamar. “When only 34 child nutrition programs in the whole country have this, it shows the quality that we put into our program.”

UCPS and Wake County Public Schools are the only two systems in North Carolina to attain this distinction. It is awarded to school districts that complete the Keys Excellence self-assessment and then demonstrate best practices that support the School Nutrition Association’s Keys to Excellence in the areas of nutrition and nutrition education, communications and marketing, administration and operations.

“In Union County Public Schools, everyone strives for excellence in all that we do,” Lamar said. “We wanted our department to show that we strive for that excellence just as our administrators, our leaders and our students do every day. We also strive for that same excellence.”

Lamar said there are many misconceptions about school lunches today and she welcomes the opportunity to set the record straight.

“People say, ‘School meals aren’t healthy.’ Well, we have analyzed the nutritional content of our meals for 20 years. That’s a big thing,” she said.

John Arrowood, a Child Nutrition supervisor, said school lunch programs have had years of bad publicity; noting a commercial currently running on prime time television that states, “Everyone knows school lunches are terrible.” They attempt to sell their prepackaged lunches, he said, at the expense of child nutrition programs across America.

“It comes on kids channel, so the kids are hearing that,” Arrowood said. “I think there are still cultural misconceptions that continue and people don’t question them. So you have mass media maintaining a stereotype.”

So how does the UCPS Child Nutrition Program set the record straight? It begins by educating students and parents that perception isn’t always reality.

“You’re going to see lots of fresh produce on the line,” Lamar said. “There is a fresh fruit out there every day and most of the time, a fresh salad. We use limited amounts of processed food. We cook from scratch. We do not fry foods.”

“There is quite a bit of variety,” Arrowood added. “When you look across the line, I think the colors will help indicate the great amount of variety offered that provide vitamins and minerals.”

The 100-calorie snack is also big push for this upcoming year, Lamar said. Recent changes in Federal regulations have increased the amount of nutrition available to students. The fruit and vegetable portion size has increased for breakfast and lunch, as have the whole grains. Lamar added that there will be an even bigger presence of whole grain foods in the lunch offerings this year.

“We’re limiting the amount of breads that can be served, but at the same time increasing the nutritional value of the breads that are served.”

There is also a rebranding or remarketing of the school lunches in Union County Public Schools. On the high school level, Lamar said Child Nutrition attempts to give the cafeteria the look and feel of a food court or restaurant.

“At the middle and high schools, we try to give them a wide variety of food,” she said. “On any given day, at any high school, there are at least seven main entree choices, and that’s not including fruits, vegetables and yogurts that would go along with that.”

Arrowood said there has also been an effort to bring in this marketing by changing the style of the dining environment. “We’re trying to talk to them in messages that they might be used to in the commercial world, even though we have much healthier and far superior products.”

Part of this, Arrowood said, is using packaging that students are used to, more photos of food displayed around the cafeteria, more colors and even neon signs to grab the attention of students. There are also a variety of salads available: a chicken Caesar salad, a chief salad, a Taco salad and a chicken fajita salad.

Even with additional fruit and vegetables offered and more of a healthy variety, school lunch prices continue to be the best deal in town, Lamar said. Breakfast is $1.15 system wide. Elementary lunch is $2, which includes an entree, a fruit, a vegetable, milk and bread. School lunches in the middle and high schools are $2.10.

“How do you pack a lunch, of the same quality, cheaper than that, and it’s a hot and freshly prepared meal,” Lamar said.

Bottom line, Lamar and Arrowood said they will let their school lunches speak for themselves. “Come have lunch with us and give us a try,” he said.

Written by: Deb Coates Bledsoe, UCPS Communications Coordinator
Posted: Sep 20, 2012 by Deb Coates Bledsoe

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