Schools take steps to give kids more fruits, vegetables at lunch

For every kid who's ever been told to eat more fruits and veggies, one of the nation's largest school cafeteria operators is developing a concept that could make lunchtime more nutritious.

Food service giant Aramark will put in 60 elementary schools next month and 300 more next fall a cafeteria format spotlighting fruits and vegetables.

The program — dubbed Cool Caf — is being tested in 16 schools and resulted in up to a 50% increase in fruit and veggie consumption at several, says Cathy Schlosberg, vice president of marketing at Aramark.

"Not only are students eating more fruits and vegetables, but our staff is, too," says Andra Gwydir, principal at Wedgwood Elementary School in Florissant, Mo., which is testing it.

Schlosberg says the program could be at all 1,500 elementary schools Aramark serves within three years.

The concept includes:

•Hefty selections. Fresh fruit and veggie "bars" are being installed with five or more fresh selections in each. Kids can take as many fruits and veggies as they want as part of their meal.

•Splashy décor. Cafeteria serving areas are being redecorated in bright colors with kid-friendly characters and signage.

"When kids walk in and see the chartreuse walls they can't believe what they're seeing," says Schlosberg.

•Shorter lines. Express lanes are being added so kids who bring lunch don't wait in long lines for fruit, veggies or milk.

In many schools, the new plan will replace lunches that had few fresh fruits or veggies. Such actions — being driven by growing nutritional demands from parents, school boards and state lawmakers — are expected to snowball in the next few years.

Nutritionists like the concept.

"I don't know that anyone has tested anything this comprehensive," says Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. "This sounds innovative."

Childhood obesity is a growing worry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in the years 2003 through 2006, 16.3% of children ages 2 to 19 were obese.

Sodexo says it, too, is serving more fruits and veggies at school with an "A to Z Salad Bar" program with a different fruit or veggie each day, says Roxanne Moore, director of wellness.

Nutritionist Cynthia Lair says those actions are great, but another problem with school lunches is entrees with cheap meat and white flour. "Now that they've taken care of step one, they need to address step two."