From Taste Tests to Ingredient Lists: America's Top Ranked School Lunch Program

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From Taste Tests to Ingredient Lists: America's Top Ranked School Lunch Program
School cafeterias earn their culinary stripes by offering taste tests, full ingredient lists, and even cooking programs for kids. Learn about America's best public school lunch program and see how your school compares.
While most parents are worried about what gets into kids' heads during a typical school day, some are also becoming increasingly concerned about what goes into their stomachs during lunch breaks as well.
Fortunately, national organizations like the School Nutrition Association are researching and providing information on school lunch programs across the country. Each year, the School Nutrition Association chooses one school district as the example for other school lunch programs, both in terms of nutrition and taste. This year, the honor goes to Fairfax County in Virginia, according to a recent report in the Washington Post.
What Does a Healthy School Lunch Look Like?
There are many factors that go into assessing what a healthy school lunch looks like, according to This organization, founded by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, has issued a number of recommended changes that they would like to see in school lunch programs, including:
  • Offer vegan or vegetarian dishes daily as an option to other school lunch fare.
  • Meet the nutritional needs of all children, including those that are lactose-intolerant, by offering calcium-rich, nondairy beverages at all meals.
  • Include a variety of vegetable dishes, as well as fresh and dried fruits.
  • Provide programs to teach healthy eating principles to food service staff, parents and students.
In addition to these criteria, the School Nutrition Association also looks at the financial and program management of a school district when determining the award recipients for the year.
Fairfax County School Lunch Program
Fairfax County puts much effort and thought into their school lunch program, from educating parents and students about the nutritional content of their meals to offering periodic taste tests to ensure the food they provide measures up to students' culinary standards. In addition to the daily lunch program, many of the schools in Fairfax County offer breakfast to students as well, according to the district website. The website also provides a healthy snack calculator to help parents and students plan nutritious snack options.
The Washington Post article also reports that Fairfax offers a program called, "Give Me 5! Colors that Jive" to introduce students to unfamiliar fruits and vegetables every month. Some of the previous selections have includes sliced jicama and sweet potato wedges. The monthly taste parties allow students to sample some of the school district's fare, and surveys are also provided so students can give input about their favorite fruits and vegetables. Extending beyond the cafeteria, the "Fairfax Kids Cooking" program introduces students to some basic cooking skills and teaches children about how to make healthy food choices for life.
Other features on the Fairfax website include activity sheets for children that focus on healthy food choices and exercise options. The fitness page offers exercise tips for students and their parents, and the cooking page includes a variety of tantalizing recipes, including tortillas with cheese and strawberry banana smoothies. Other website pages offer a plethora of nutrition information to help parents make good food choices for their kids, both during and after school hours. Indeed, the program is well rounded, reaching beyond the plastic trays of the school cafeteria. 
About the School Nutrition Association
The School Nutrition Association was established in 1964 and provides "high-quality professional development, financial aid and research programs to child nutrition professionals and members of the SNA," according to the SNA website. Each year, the organization selects one school district to receive the District of the Year in School Nutrition award, based on the nutritional content of the food served, information provided to parents and students, and the fiscal and organizational management of their school lunch program.
Previous winners of the nutrition award include Spring Independent School District in Texas, which won the award in 2008. This school district was recognized for its work in creative marketing of low-fat milk, availability of fruits and vegetables in the classroom, and training and certification of a large number of nutrition staff members. The SNA website also noted that Spring's Child Nutrition Department was able to remain fiscally sound while maintaining nutritional integrity and improving cafeteria decor, staff training and equipment to provide the best meals to their students and staff.
Nutritious lunches are an integral part of a healthy, productive school day, as more and more school districts are discovering. By providing high quality nutrition to students daily, and offering training and education in the area of healthy eating, schools are teaching kids skills that will benefit them for a lifetime. The School Nutrition Association does its part by recognizing school districts that stand out from the crowd in terms of healthy eating habits that produce healthy kids, parents and staff every day.

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