Columbia Moves to the Front of the Lunch Line

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COLUMBIA - If the USDA has its way, fries, ice cream and fried fish sticks will soon be scraped from the plate. Earlier this year, the USDA introduced new requirements to fight the childhood obesity epidemic at the source - the lunch line. But for Columbia, there's not much to change.

The new USDA guidelines work to reduce calorie counts in kids' lunches. School's must offer four half-cup servings of fruit a week, limit starchy vegetables like potatoes to one serving a week and increase the number of dark green vegetables and legumes.

Columbia Public Schools claims it already offers more fruits and vegetables than the USDA now requires. The district's "Farm to School" program brings in fresh salad bar items and fruits from local growers.

The one area CPS has to improve? Whole grain. The USDA now requires more than half of the grains offered by schools be whole grains.

"We don't meet the 51% threshold yet," nutrition director Laina Fullum said. "But we're working with suppliers, and they're really proactive and interested in helping us meet that requirement."

CPS plans to make ingredient swaps to meet the new requirements. By August 2011, CPS school menus should exceed USDA expectations.

"It might cost more on our end," Fullum said. "But we don't expect another increase from this year."

CPS raised school lunch prices 35 cents at the beginning of the school year.

While the schools offer a lot of different, healthy choices, the hard part is actually getting the kids to pick the healthier food, lunchroom staffers at Paxton Keeley Elementary said.

"They have more options than I've ever seen," assistant principal Carole Garth said. Now, the school has to focus on education, Garth added.

While many students added chocolate milk and a dessert to their trays - two options the USDA wants to eliminate from the lunch line over the next decade - they balance it with salad and fruit. Kindergartners are learning about nutrition, which made a lot of them excited to add grapes and carrots to their plates Tuesday.

"The more these kids know about food, and the better we can feed them, the more they'll learn in the classroom," Garth said, bringing school nutrition full circle.