Valley City's school lunch program has been recognized by the United States Department of Agriculture as one of the healthiest, nutrition-minded programs in the country. Meanwhile, the US House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday that will continue to allow federally funded school lunch programs to consider pizza a vegetable.
The Valley City School District again received an award from the USDA HealthierUS School Challenge this month. Valley City leads the state with six awards since the program began in 2006. The remaining 21 awards were won by nine other districts in the state. Nationally, about 1,500 schools out of 101,000 in the nation have won the award.
For schools to be eligible for the HealthierUS award, they must participate in the National School Lunch Program, offer reimbursable lunches that meet USDA standards, support wellness policy efforts of its school district, and most importantly, meet nutrition standards for meals and offer nutrition and physical education. The food services director must also complete a 94-page application booklet and provide documentation of recipes and food labels.
Food services director Sue Milender, who recently returned from Mississippi where she was one of five directors participating in a USDA experts panel, said the award shows that Valley City schools' lunch program is well on its way to adopting new guidelines that the USDA will implement for the 2012-2013 school year.
"Things are changing daily," she said. "Until we find out what's exactly in the regulations it's hard to tell; there's a lot of lobbying going on right now. It's going to be interesting to see what the regulations will be."
The American Frozen Food Institute and other organizations had lobbied congress on behalf of companies that produce frozen pizzas and french fries to try to limit the new USDA proposed limits on foods that are part of the federally-funded school lunches. The USDA had hoped to reduce the frequency of fries being served would have required a slice of pizza to have at least half a cup of tomato paste. Current regulations require slices to only have two tablespoons of tomato paste, which schools are allowed to classify as a vegetable to satisfy dietary guidelines.
On the other side of the congressional lobby, several organizations were trying to persuade congress to not allow the lines of food classification to be blurred.
Sharon Buhr, a member of some of those organizations as well as the Valley City School Board and director of Young People's Healthy Heart at Mercy Hospital, said the efforts to classify pizza as a vegetable is "kind of weak."
"I do not feel that a slice of pizza would be an entire serving of vegetables, even though it has either pizza sauce or tomato paste on it," Buhr said, adding that in a scientific sense tomatoes are considered a fruit.
Buhr said that serving french fries in schools as a vegetable was also a misguided attempt to sneak certain foods under the radar. Starchy vegetables such as white potatoes where also on the USDA's watch list. Milender said the Valley City cafeterias offer potatoes three to four times a month either baked, mashed, scalloped or baked oven fries, and there are no deep fryers in any of the Valley City schools.
"Sue does in incredible job; she's just fantastic over at the school," Burh said. "She will only put in french fries when the whole meal meets the nutritional guidelines and this is not true of all schools."
Milender and Valley City schools were also among seven directors and schools featured in the USDA's new book, Making it Happen: School Nutrition Success Stories. As First Lady Michelle Obama champions the fight against childhood obesity, Milender was among a select group of school food service directors invited to a reception at the White House, which she declined to attend.