School Food Revolution

By Kathleen Vail

Want to know exactly how many calories are in that bean and cheese burrito? What about those baby carrots with ranch dressing? And just how much cholesterol is in a corndog, anyway?

If you live in California's Newport-Mesa Unified School District, the answers to questions like these are a simple mouse click away. Children and parents who visit the district's website can find out the sodium, cholesterol, fiber, and fat content in every lunch menu choice.

Newport-Mesa, like many districts across the nation, has entered the brave new world of school food. It's an area that always has been governed by regulations and ruled by the constraints of the marketplace. But today, health concerns over alarmingly high numbers of overweight and obese students are spurring numerous changes in how and what schools feed children.

"It's not about being a food cop; it's about our state's essential survival," says Susan Combs, the agriculture secretary in Texas, which now requires schools to reduce portion sizes and stop all deep-fat frying. "It is what's right for these kids."

Districts are transforming everything about the food they offer. Today's schools are providing nutrition information, salad bars heaped with fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms, vegetarian and vegan alternatives. Frying is out; baking is in. Even that greasy fast-food favorite "the pizza" is getting a health-conscious makeover, complete with whole-wheat crust, low-fat cheese, and veggie toppings.

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