First lady recognizes Troy School District for healthy menus

By: Terry Oparka | Troy Times | Published November 9, 2011

 Fourth-grader Ethan Alexander ponders selections in the lunch line at Leonard Elementary Nov. 7.

Fourth-grader Ethan Alexander ponders selections in the lunch line at Leonard Elementary Nov. 7.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Leonard Elementary fifth-grader Aarushi Malhotra likes that there’s something different in the fruit and vegetable lunch line at school each day. Fifth-grader Greg Mayernik said he doesn’t notice a difference between the skim chocolate milk and the higher-fat variety the school used to offer.

First lady Michelle Obama recently recognized all the elementary schools in the Troy School District for taking part in the United States Department of Agriculture’s HealthierUS School Challenge, part of the first lady’s Let’s Move! Initiative, aimed at ending childhood obesity. Troy schools were among the 1,273 honored at the White House Oct. 17 in recognition of meeting nutritional and physical education guidelines.

The challenge is open to all schools in the U.S. that participate in the National School Lunch Program. The USDA Food and Nutrition Service processes the applications.

All 12 elementary schools in Troy have been awarded bronze status. All of Birmingham Public Schools’ eight elementary schools also earned bronze status.

Last school year, the Troy School District served more than 700,000 lunches and 744,000 cartons of milk. At the elementary level, about half the students buy lunch at school each day, and that percentage increases in the higher grades.

There are four award levels — bronze, silver, gold and the gold award of distinction. Program guidelines state that schools must offer students a different type of fruit every day. For bronze and silver status, fruit must be served fresh once a week, and for gold status it must be served fresh twice a week. Under the bronze and silver award guidelines, whole-grain foods must be offered three or more days per week — and not the same ones each day — and whole grains must be offered every day to earn gold status. Under all award guidelines, milk must be skim, 1 percent fat or less. The bronze requirements also include 45 minutes of physical education or unstructured opportunity for exercise each school day, plus nutrition education.

Troy School District Assistant Superintendent Jan Keeling said that Troy and Birmingham were the only two school districts in the state where all elementary schools met requirements for recognition. Sodexo Food Services has managed the Troy School District’s food services program since the board voted to outsource the program in May 2009. Sodexo also manages Birmingham Public School’s food service program.

Each school building received a banner, a plaque and $500 to fund nutritional information or physical education.

“It’s amazing how the kids have gravitated toward skim milk,” said Gayle Moran, general manager of Troy Food Services. Moran also held that position prior to the decision to the hiring Sodexo. She noted that more dark-green and orange fruits and vegetables have been incorporated into the program, and she credited Samantha Mzdzierz, the dietician in Troy, for implementing the new guidelines in the schools.

Mzdzierz said she began integrating whole-wheat bread into the menu gradually, then completely when they learned guidelines for the challenge stated that bread had to be whole wheat. However, they discovered that students wouldn’t eat the darker bread, so they searched for a whole-wheat product that was whiter.

Until recently, vendors didn’t offer chocolate milk in the skim variety, another requirement for the challenge, Moran said.

While fresh fruit and vegetables are available to students daily, Sodexo Food Services offered the “A to Z salad bar” as a special, one-time event at all the elementary schools last year. The salad bar featured 26 items and was offered as part of lunch or as a separate program. A sign explained each food item and where it came from, or a nutritional fact about it.

Moran explained that at first they allowed the children to help themselves in the line, but they discovered that kids, being kids, stayed with the “tried and true.” So they made up “boats,” with a variety of vegetables. “It was a huge success,” Moran said. “We will do that again. We had so much positive feedback from parents.”

Amy DeLong said her son, a third-grader at Martell Elementary School, subsisted on a “beige” diet. She said she had tried to get him to try something new each birthday, but it rarely worked. “It’s been a battle since he started solids as a baby,” she said in an email. “He came home yesterday, and the first words out of his mouth were, ‘I tried 11 new foods today.’ … You just got him to expand his palate immensely. … I was told I need to buy star fruit today.”

The star fruit was also a hit with Melhotra and Mayernik. “I had never tried it,” Melhotra said. “Once I tried it, I really liked it.”

Mayernik said that he had never been a fan of cucumbers before A to Z. “These were a different kind. I liked it,” he said. He added that he really liked the watermelon, especially the yellow variety.

“My family is from India, and they like to have lychee there,” Melhotra said. She was surprised that the fruit was featured in A to Z. “I liked it,” she said.

Moran said it was labor intensive to chop and prepare the 26 items for the salad bar, and there was a large amount of waste involved because the food that wasn’t eaten had to be thrown away, which prevents them from offering it on a regular basis.

Going forward, Food Services will focus on a special fruit or vegetable each month. November is carrot month.

The first lady expressed heartfelt and sincere appreciation for the winning schools, double the goal number of 800 schools, Moran said. “She was pleased with that.”

“Most kids don’t think vegetables taste good,” Melhotra said. “If they actually try them, they do.”