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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 17, 2004

School lunches going healthier

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Health Writer

When the next school year starts, Hawai'i public school students can expect more frozen yogurt and fruit juice and less ice cream and sugary drinks as healthier foods push out some popular ala carte choices now selling at cafeterias statewide.

Food preparer Joni Foo scoops up some fried rice for students at Highlands Intermediate School. The state Department of Education plans to cut back on low-nutrition side items, replacing them with healthier alternatives.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

That's what Gene Kaneshiro, the director of the School Food Services Branch for Hawai'i's public school system says. While school lunches have followed federal nutrition guidelines for some time, schools in recent years have begun offering alternatives that don't meet standards for regular lunches.

That will change later this year as the Department of Education will require those a la carte items — sold alongside conventional lunches — to meet stricter nutritional standards, Kaneshiro said. That includes drinks with at least 50 percent fruit juice; frozen yogurt and ice milk instead of ice cream, and nachos with chips made from enriched flour and reduced-fat cheese.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest issued a report Tuesday criticizing secondary schools nationwide for selling junk food in vending machines. It said 75 percent of drinks and 85 percent of snacks are of poor nutritional value.

Greg Knudsen, State Department of Education spokesman, said Hawai'i public schools don't sell food in vending machines. Also, the state Board of Education last month voted for a new policy that school beverage vending machines should contain primarily healthy drinks such as water, milk and fruit juices.

Keoni Strom eats school lunch at Kaimuki High School about twice a week, choosing a mix of what's healthy and what tastes good. Strom likes the chow fun and manapua as well as the salad bar that comes with the $1 student meals.

Strom, a junior from Palolo, said he tries to watch his weight and balance his food, so better nutrition sounds OK to him. His philosophy of lunch is simple: "If it tastes good, it's a hit."

His friend Dalrene Dole, another junior, said she eats the campus lunch about once a week. When she does, she picks a fast alternative such as pizza. She said the school's pizza falls somewhere in the middle of "healthy/not too healthy" — not as greasy as what she'd get at some restaurants.

Valvet Maduli and Camrie McArthur show off the range of food available at Highlands Intermediate School: from fruit and vegetables on the left to nuggets and fries on the right.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Fellow junior Andy Hayashi takes a critical look at the food available and makes a day-to-day decision about whether he'll eat there. He likes the fruit and vegetables in the salad bar but has his doubts about many hot entrées, eating "whatever doesn't look like leftovers."

Knudsen said school policy also bans the sale of other foods during the school day that interfere with school lunches. And that's where Kaneshiro found a need for improvement. He saw that school cafeterias had begun to rely on sales of popular but nutritionally questionable choices such as nachos, tacos and ice cream.

Kaneshiro said some of those menu choices evolved out of schools looking at "what kids will eat versus what kids should eat."

Kaneshiro said about 75 percent of Hawai'i public school students in grades K-12 buy school lunches, well above the national average of 55 percent. "We're trying to teach kids to make the right choices, so we have to offer them the right choices," he said. "When we sell chips, we just reinforce a bad habit."

Kaneshiro, who got his start in the competitive restaurant environment of his family's Columbia Inn business, understands that people want foods that appeal to them, but he sees schools with the power to encourage lifelong healthy habits.

At Highlands Intermediate School in Pearl City, principal Amy Martinson said more than 75 percent of her 1,100 students buy lunch at school. Martinson credits the creative and innovative skills of school food services manager Darryl Nakagawa and his staff.

Under Nakagawa's guidance, the cafeteria offers a traditional hot lunch as well as as least four fast-meal choices daily that include such entrees as chicken nuggets, corn chowder with a tuna sandwich, low-sodium saimin and other noodle dishes. He said students also like the fruit and vegetables in the salad bar.

He said he has been experimenting for years with ways to make the food more nutritious but still appealing. Sometimes, the kids surprise him, such as when they liked vegetarian lasagna.

Students who eat lunch get a bonus: They can buy a special dessert — including brownies, parfaits, fruit pies and other snacks — for 50 cents. Nakagawa keeps the desserts healthy by using lower-fat recipes. "We have a very, very popular dessert bar," Martinson said.

She said students know the policy and supervisors monitor lunch. And overall, she said, students do eat most of their lunches, which makes her happy as an educator.

Martinson said students who eat better learn better. "They're ready to learn, they're eager to learn and they perform better," she said. "They have the energy to learn."

Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2429.