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Better School Lunches

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  The New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee last week announced eight recommendations to improve food quality in New Orleans schools. The committee, launched in 2007 by the New Orleans City Council, issued a report ("Stepping Up to the Plate: Transforming School Food in New Orleans") hoping to lower Louisiana's obesity and hunger rates and improve nutrition in school meals.

  One in five children in the state is at risk of hunger, and a similar number are obese. The most served meals in New Orleans schools (chicken nuggets, pizza, hamburgers) aren't helping. The committee calls for whole grains, fresh (not processed) fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and eliminating soft drinks.

  "We cannot have a healthy city without healthy kids," says Ashley Graham, committee co-chair and Louisiana director of Share Our Strength, a national organization working to eliminate child hunger.

  Recommendations include increasing federal reimbursement rates for free and reduced-price meals, which would give low-income children better access to healthy foods in place of current school lunch programs. Eighty-four percent of New Orleans school children (about 32,000 kids) currently qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. "They still deserve a high quality meal, every day," says New Orleans College Prep Charter School founder and director Ben Kleban.

  Other recommendations include locally sourcing school meals, ensuring schools serve breakfast, lunch and snacks that go beyond the USDA's outdated minimum nutrition standards (established in 1995), and calling on the city and schools to update kitchen equipment so they can serve students fresh, nutritious meals.

  The committee says the Recovery School District and Orleans Parish Public Schools should assess the kitchen needs of schools. That may require a plumbing and budgetary overhaul, Graham admits. The committee also recommends that schools develop enrichment activities such as trips to farmers markets and cooking classes. Donna Covato, FPAC co-chair and executive director of the Edible Schoolyard, says if kids are engaged and "part of the process — if they grow it and cook it — they're going to eat it." — Alex Woodward

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