Photo by Jessa Pease.
Melinda Bonner said the child nutrition program is there to promote a healthy lifestyle and provide healthy, nutritious options for its students.
In a world filled with backpacks, lockers and textbooks, lunch is everyone’s favorite subject.
Back in the day, cafeteria food was served assembly line style on a steam table but Hoover City Schools have debunked old stereotypes and are now modernizing their lunchrooms.
Melinda Bonner, a registered dietician, serves as the child nutrition director for Hoover City Schools, and she said they have a lot of programs designed to provide children with healthy and fun options.
“Participation is the main goal,” Bonner said. “You want the kids to come and eat with us. That is not only selfish for us wanting our program to grow, but we also see what comes in their lunchboxes. They may not be getting a nutritious meal that way.”
The biggest concept in high school right now, according to Bonner, is the food court concept, which gives students a variety of choices instead of the stereotypical lunchroom food.
Now, the foods students can choose from more closely resemble the foods students already eat at restaurants. Students who enjoy places like Taco Bell and Pizza Hut can enjoy the Mexican and pizza bars, and grab-and-go sandwiches and salads are always available.
Branding is another way the schools are catering more to the tastes of their students with options like Sabre hummus, Gatorade, Milo’s unsweet tea and milk now served in plastic jugs instead of cardboard cartons.
“Those are recognizable names and that branding means they are going to be more likely to pick it up,” Bonner said. “So I would say atmosphere of the layout, and the branding —that’s how we win our older customers.”
In addition to attracting students, the foods are also healthy.
Hoover City Schools is part of the National School Lunch Program, which is federally mandated by the USDA to have specific meal patterns and components to every meal. They also provide guidelines for calorie, sodium and fat levels.
Since the 1940s, the National School Lunch program has had these regulations, but in 2010 there were some major changes brought in by Michelle Obama’s child nutrition platform. Within a week’s menu plan, meals must have an orange vegetable, a red vegetable, a dark green vegetable, legumes, a starchy vegetable and other vegetables, and all breads, cereals and grains must be whole grain.
Although the changes were made in 2010, Hoover City Schools were ahead of the game. In 2008, Bluff Park Elementary School was the first school in Alabama to conform to the new regulations, and the rest of Hoover followed. By the time the regulations came out, Hoover students couldn’t tell the difference. They were already used to the new system.
Bonner said the schools have all been updating their wellness plans, and they are trying to reach out more with nutrition education. Some of the schools have gardens, some offer cooking classes and some classes simply introduce new vegetables to their students.
One of the latest programs Hoover schools have started to implement is a universal free breakfast program where every student is given a free breakfast in the morning. Bonner said they have already seen benefits from this program in a reduction in those coming in late, improved attendance and fewer students who visit the nurse with stomachaches.
Trace Crossings and Green Valley were the first to offer this program, and Rocky Ridge Elementary will start in October.
“We are doing a lot more than just providing food,” Bonner said. “We are reaching out and trying to educate as well.”