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Schools step up lunch nutrition

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POSTED September 19, 2012 1:07 a.m.

Fresh vegetables from the school farm. Partnering with local growers which translates to more fresh food supplies from farm to fork. Meals prepared with lower sodium and sugar content. No more sodas sold in school cafeterias.

During the last few years, all these steps have been taking place in Manteca Unified School District’s nearly three-dozen campus cafeterias to help promote healthier lifestyles among approximately 23,000 students in K-12 grades.

The disappearance of sodas and other sweetened beverages plus food that are high in fat and sugar content is the result of studies that, today, is making everyone aware about the types of food we should have in our daily diet and those that we should either avoid or consume sparingly. The wake-up call to the need for adopting a healthier lifestyle in the food that we eat comes from the epidemic of overweight children sweeping the country, and from studies which show that reduction of soda consumption among the young is one of the most promising strategies for preventing obesity.

Laws enacted in recent years made sure these health concerns are addressed by having diet changes instituted on school campuses. A law that took effect in 2004 prohibited the sale of bottled and can sodas on elementary, middle and junior high school campuses in California. That was followed by a similar mandate that applied to the high school level which required half of soda and other sweetened drinks for sale reduced by 2005, with 100 percent elimination of those beverages on campus by 2007. They have been replaced by bottled water, with 1 percent white milk and fat-free and corn syrup-free chocolate milk still a part of the lunch meals served in school cafeterias.

Manteca Unified’s Nutrition Services Program also is not only making sure that the students’ lunch meals incorporate proper-nutrition food and fresh fruits and vegetables. They have to be farm fresh as well. Into the picture comes the school district’s Veggie Express to make that a reality. Veggie Express is the program coming out of the school farm, an agri-business project that allows students to apply the concepts they learn in the classroom. They plant different kinds of crops on the six-acre field right in the back yard of the school district office on West Louise Avenue and Airport Way, rotating them according to the season, and then picking them for delivery to the storage facility at the district office. Delivery of the fresh produce is done on a weekly basis, right after the vegetables are picked in the field, and then delivered to the different cafeteria sites for optimum freshness.

The approximately 23,000 meals served each day of the school year – breakfast, lunch and snacks included – are prepared by an army of 125 Nutrition Services staff headed by program director Patty Page.

Food safety is a part of the Nutrition Services program that is taken very seriously to assure parents that the students have safe and nutritious meals. In her September 2012 message on the school district’s web site, Page enumerated the important food-safety procedures that are rigorously implemented by her staff constantly, listing them in conjunction with the observance in September of National Food Safety Month:

•  Over 90 percent of our staff is Food Safety Certified.

• Annual food safety training is conducted for all staff.

• Personal hygiene practices are enforced.

• San Joaquin Environmental Health conducts two inspections annually at each school site and the district food warehouse.

• Temperatures are taken and recorded 3 times per day for each piece of equipment in use.

• Food temperatures are taken and recorded at all stages of food preparation, serving and storage.

• Food samples are saved for 3 days in the event that testing is required.

Added Page, “As a parent of two children and a grandmother, I know how important it is to keep foods safe and wholesome. The Nutrition Services staff is committed to the health and safety of every child that we serve.”

She encourages those with any concern or question regarding food safety to immediately call 858-0778.

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