Deep-fried food is no longer served at Central Senior High in St. Paul.
“The food nutrition people came and took out all our deep fryers! Did you know,” asked Wanda Christensen, the high school’s cafeteria supervisor. “Everything from now on, including our fries, (is) baked now.”
School cafeterias around the Twin Cities are making an effort to improve the nutrition of food offered to students. But when you consider the findings of a new report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – a federal agency that monitors the health of Americans – it seems likely teens aren’t picking many fruits and vegetables to eat at lunch.
According to a CDC report released in late September, only 32 percent of high school students reported eating at least two servings of fruit daily and only 13 percent say they eat at least three servings of vegetables each day. At least two servings of fruit and at least three of vegetable are recommended every day.
Only 1 in 10 teens reported eating the combined daily recommendation of fruits and vegetables, according to the CDC.
Adults not eating much better
Only 33 percent of adults meet the recommendation for fruit consumption and 27 percent get the recommended servings of vegetables, according to CDC surveys.
“I heard something about that. It doesn’t really worry me. I feel fit,” said Mia Gonzales, a freshman at Arlington Senior High. “I guess we just don’t like the way (fruits and vegetables) taste.”
Gonzales said when she’s in a hurry, she’ll often stop at a McDonald’s to get something to eat. “I tried to lose weight last year but I couldn’t stand eating all that healthy food. It doesn’t taste good,” she said.
Students say that they refrain from taking healthy options at school because fruits and vegetables are oftentimes unappealing. “One of my main goals is to make the food look clean and appealing to students so that they will take it,” Christensen said.
Aarika Perez, a senior at Arlington, said at her school, the oranges look dirty, the apples are soft and it looks like the same produce is put out over and over again.
Professor of nutrition
Many schools around Minnesota are adding healthier choices to their lunch meals, but Jamie Stang, who has a PhD in nutrition said: “They need to balance out what they give teens. For example, give good foods three times a week and two days of junk food. No one should have to quit junk food, but just not eat too much of it.”
Stang also thinks that schools do influence what teens decide to eat outside of school based on the choices we make while in lunch.
“Not having much of a variety of healthy choices in school lunches encourages poor eating habits,” Stand said. “One thing I still don’t understand is that schools teach one thing in health class about eating healthy and then you go to the cafeteria and they show something different – unhealthy.”
“If we are really concerned about people eating healthy, I think that schools could play a major role in doing so. If all the students began eating salad or apples instead of hamburgers and fries, (teens would be) more likely to choose that and get used to the taste of it in and out of school,” Stang said.
– Sinthia Mireya Turcios
Christensen said that it is common to find vegetables and fruits that are bruised or soft. “Our fruits and vegetables are shipped in boxes from all over the nation, it is typical to find some with bruises,” she said. “The only things that we can do are cut those parts off, and use the other parts.”
For Kevin Yang, a junior at Arlington, carrying around an apple or orange just doesn’t seem as convenient as how McDonald’s packages its food, he said.
At Central, Christensen has discovered a simple way to make fruits and veggies more appealing to students. “I find that students seem to take more fruits and vegetables when we cut them. We put our salads in containers and fruits and vegetables in bags. It is more accessible and easier for students to grab and eat,” she said.
Christensen says that the new technique has a higher percentage of students taking the fruits and veggies. “At the end of every day, even though it’s not all the students eating them, I still find that the amount of fruits and vegetables eaten is a lot,” she said.
Christensen has been helping administer the Central cafeteria for many years. She says that she has seen vast change in the eating habits of students.
Five different lunch options are served daily at Central. Some student favorites are egg rolls and fried rice, Italian lasagna, Thai peanut chicken, along with the usual chicken patty, burgers and fries.
“Half the time, I don’t think that students know that they can have at least five different types of fruits and veggies at lunch every day,” said Christensen.
Other telling findings by the CDC, according to the press release about the study, is that only 1 in 5 middle and high schools offer fruits and non-fried vegetables in vending machines, snack bars or school stores. And only 21 states have a policy to support farm-to-school programs that can increase high school students’ access to fruits and vegetables.
In the past year, the Saint Paul Public School District began participating in a project funded by the Kellogg Foundation called FOCUS, a national network of large, urban school districts trying to expand their use of healthier locally and sustainably grown foods in cafeterias.
“We try our best to make the healthy options available. We want everybody to be healthy,” Christensen said. “We try to have different fruits and vegetables put out. We also try to have as many different varieties and entrees as we can. We have a new recipe every week.”
“When it all comes down to it, it’s the students’ choice in what they choose to eat,” she said.