PTA Coffee Break: Nutrition forum offers up 'food for thought'

We have all seen national headlines about childhood obesity, Type 2 diabetes in children and the overall health and social costs of U.S. obesity rates. Michelle Obama has been a champion of raising awareness of these critically important issues.

But where is Laguna Beach in this picture? On Oct. 19, Coffee Break hosted both our school district Food Service Manager Debra Appel and local registered dietitian Melanie Silverman to bring interested parents and educators up to speed on local nutritional practices in our schools and guiding common-sense basics.

Appel is a woman of passion when it comes to feeding our children in the most wholesome, organic, sustainable and scrumptious way possible. She detailed how the district has always been ahead of the curve in terms of improving food offerings.

Hormone-free milk was initiated in 1997. Trans-fat was removed in 2004. Three out of four school sites have had salad bars since 2005. Whole grains have been offered at all sites since 2008. More recently, whole-grain breads and rolls are served "fresh-baked daily" from a local bakery.

New menu items are being developed with international flavor profiles, including homemade soups, whole-grain pastas and tortillas. Corn dogs and hot dogs have been eliminated, and "Meatless Mondays" have begun. All milk now served is fat-free, and the chocolate milk no longer is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.

Through the initiatives of three separate programs, our schools have come to a higher level of excellence. The Salad Bars 2 Schools program has provided El Morro Elementary School with a new "kid-friendly high tech" salad bar serving locally grown organic fruits and vegetables. Thurston Middle School, the only site without an official salad bar, is serving organic fruits and vegetables daily. A permanent salad bar there is in the planning stages.

As part of a USDA Commodities program, our district earned $23,000 last year from the federal government for using USDA surplus supplies as part of its "from scratch" recipes. This offsets the $100,000 general operating funds supplied to the Nutrition Services Program from the district.

While our food service was formerly self-sustaining, the recession, higher quality standards and a lower participation rate have necessitated this additional underwriting. At this point, our district serves approximately 700 lunches a day in total, representing a participation rate of about 23%. Perhaps once people become aware of the alternatives offered, participation will go up!

Silverman addressed the group, beginning with her "feeding philosophies." While extremely simple in scope, these guidelines become the backbone of creating a wholesome, lifelong relationship with food.

The first is: Eat when hungry, stop when full. She cautioned people to become aware of "mindless munching" (like that in front of TV), which is not in response to hunger. In fact, anything that distracts one from the experience of the food should be avoided.

She also encouraged keeping an open attitude toward a variety of foods. Allow your children to continue to try new things; never tell them that "they don't like asparagus!"

Kids should come to the table for family meals. Again, while deceptively simple, this actually addresses many issues beyond simple nutrition.

It reinforces manners, models good behavior and engenders respect for parents' efforts to feed healthy, nutritious meals. Silverman asserts it makes your kids "healthy, happy and helps them get into college." Balanced meals support health, the community of family is shown to lead to happier children, and the family meal experience has been shown to improve cognitive development.

Silverman gave a check-list of general nutritional advice:

•Eat fruits and vegetables

•Fresh food is best (our farmers market is her "pharmacy")

•Read labels to avoid dyes and high-fructose corn syrup

•Find fiber; look for greater than three grams per serving

•Think before you drink; children can get heart palpitations from energy drinks

•Limit added sugar; there are 7 teaspoons of sugar in a 12 oz. soda

•Watch artificial sweeteners

•Be careful with supplements, especially if your children are consuming "nutrition" bars, fortified cereals, etc., which could lead to going beyond the recommended daily amount.

Sports nutrition was of special interest to our parent audience. For active kids, Silverman emphasized the importance of a good breakfast. If your child isn't hungry, start with warm water or decaf tea with milk. Even high-quality hot chocolate (with 2% milk) is an excellent start. Then kids can graduate to the smoothie, which incorporates a multitude of good ingredients.

Body image among our children is also a topic of concern. Silverman cautioned parents to watch their own behavior related to food/body image issues.

"Make your home a safe haven" from cultural standards of unrealistic thinness. Be aware of which magazines are around, what people in the family say about appearances, what is eaten, how exercise is incorporated into the family lifestyle. Silverman suggested eight ways to support healthy body image:

•Value talent and accomplishments over appearance in your children

•Teach children to view media with a critical eye

•Emphasize that there are different body shapes, all normal

•Tell children that weight-gain at puberty is normal

•Listen to what is said about bodies

•Promote activities/exercise as fun

•Don't limit foods; moderation is key

•Exercise for health, and not to earn "forbidden" food

Once again, Coffee Break has brought a topic close to the hearts of many in our community to the forefront, and has provided solid information and shared our school district's response.

For more detailed information or a video of the presentation, visit or find us on Facebook.

KATE ROGERS is a mother of three and a member of the Coffee Break committee.

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