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NEWS : State to Pace Team' Effort on Nutrition in U.S. Schools


More fresh produce, less fat and a couple of Disney characters will greet California students participating in the National School Lunch Program during the coming weeks.

The state is the first to embrace the Clinton Administrations' reforms for the 50-year-old school feeding program, often criticized for serving unpalatable meals that also lack proper nutrient content.

The sweeping changes for school cafeterias begin today as officials from California's Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Agriculture meet in a ceremony at Prairie Elementary School in Elk Grove, near Sacramento.

An estimated 2 million children at 8,300 California schools eat federally subsidized lunches each day, according to the USDA.

The current initiative, labeled "Team Nutrition," is the cornerstone of Clinton Administration efforts to improve the quality of a federal feeding effort that dates to 1946.

Team Nutrition is designed to assist school districts in implementing the School Meal Initiative for Healthy Children passed into law in June. Central to the initiative is the requirement that school meals comply with the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which establishes levels for the proper intake of fat, calories, salt and other nutrients in the diet.

Ellen Haas, the USDA's undersecretary for food and consumer services, says the program has three goals for the nation's school lunches: adding more fruit, vegetables and grains; decreasing the amount of fat, and increasing vitamin content.

Beyond that, she says, Team Nutrition is a means of getting nutrition information into the classroom with the hope of improving students' diets and health.

The educational effort is especially important, says Duwayne Brooks, director of child nutrition and food distribution for the California Department of Education in Sacramento, because if the school cafeterias only serve nutritious food but the students are not motivated to accept it, "we have lost the battle."

By improving the food quality and adding health education support, Haas also hopes that the number of children participating in the federally subsidized lunch program will increase. Only about 54% of the children eligible for the program actually participate, a level that has been declining for the past seven years, she says.

California was chosen for the campaign kick-off because it already operates a program similar to, but not as extensive as, Team Nutrition. More than 500 state schools participate in Shaping Health Choices for Partners in Education (SHAPE).

Team Nutrition also has the backing of Walt Disney Co., which is providing cartoon characters from its hit movie "The Lion King" to serve as "spokestoons" for the campaign. The substantial participation of a private sector company--such as Disney--is unprecedented at USDA.

Disney is not the only surprising partner for Team Nutrition. The Department of Defense will assist USDA in devising ways to deliver more fresh fruit and vegetables to school districts. The Produce Marketing Assn., a trade group, will develop school training programs on proper purchasing, storage and use of fresh fruits and vegetables. The American Culinary Federation, comprised of institutional chefs, is also contributing recipes devised by its members in collaboration with school food service directors to provide more nutritious and appetizing meals for cafeterias.

The fates of Team Nutrition, and the entire $4.7-billion National School Lunch Program, remain uncertain, however, and won't be resolved until next month, when Congress reconvenes from its current recess.

The House wants to "block grant" the funds for school lunch as a lump sum paid to each state once annually. The states would then operate their own feeding program without federal guidelines or regulations. The Senate, however, has not voted in favor of block grants for school lunches. The two chambers must reconcile their different positions before funding is released for the upcoming fiscal year.

The Clinton Administration is opposing the movement toward block grants. USDA's Haas says that such a drastic change in funding would jeopardize children's health because schools could serve meals without regard to nutrition or any other standards.

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