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LEMS serving a healthy heaping of education

Posted: Thursday, Oct 11th, 2012

Photo/Phillip Collins

In 1826, French lawyer and politician Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”

Over the years, this aphorism was refined and distilled as the far more familiar utterance, “You are what you eat.”

And, these words have held sway, as is evidenced by America’s expanding waistline. According to 2012 statistics from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), a third of American adults are overweight. Another third are obese. Collectively, this amounts to 68.8 percent of all American adults.

Even more disturbing are the numbers related to children. A USDA survey revealed that, in 2009, approximately 94 percent of schools served lunches that fell woefully short of federal health standards. Worse still, 80 percent of the lunches served in those schools exceeded federal recommendations for fat and saturated fat. Indeed, American children are what they eat. Unfortunately, they’re eating fat.

To counter the rising tide of childhood obesity, First Lady Michelle Obama has spearheaded a new set of guidelines for school lunches. These include the daily provision of fruits and vegetables, the increased provision of grain-rich foods, the restriction of milk to fat-free of low-fat varieties, the limiting of student calorie intakes to 850 calories, and the reduction of trans fats, saturated fats, and sodium.

As is the case with many of the reforms being enacted by the Obama Administration, this new school lunch program has prompted controversy. While they may not be as incisive as some of the criticisms made on the national level, misgivings have been voiced on the local level. According to Lusk Elementary-Middle School (LEMS) Principal Jennifer Figenser, the First Lady’s intentions are noble, but her approach overlooks a stark reality... the youth’s deep-seated contempt for fruits and veggies.

Figenser contends that a support system of counselors and parental engagement is necessary component of any campaign attempting to engender healthier dietary practices among today’s children. This support system, according to Figenser, is difficult to maintain with the limited resources available to most schools.

“I think it was great in theory,” Figenser said. “I think what she (Michelle Obama) was trying to get across was to get kids to choose fruits and vegetables. What we’re seeing is that there’s just not a lot of counseling and support for kids to really encourage them. We do the best we can, but we don’t have someone to talk one-on-one with every kid about their diet. So, it sometimes doesn’t go off as she planned and they are missing some of those calories because they’re not doing the fruits and veggies. They’re not trying those out.”

Yet, as the Chinese rendering of the word connotes, every crisis also represents an opportunity. The nationwide health crisis is certainly no exception. Concerns over student dietary practices have occasioned a lesson in democracy for LEMS students. Figenser stated that students have been assigned the task of penning feedback concerning their lunches. Given the upcoming elections, this exercise in freedom of expression seems most appropriate.

“We’re working on writing school-wide and that seemed like an authentic writing assignment,” Figenser said. “If they did complain to their teachers, this would be their chance to take some action and be proactive. Lots of times, the kids would complain that they didn’t have enough to eat or that they wanted something else. Usually, they did want the grains and the meat. Typically, they want high fat kinds of things. So, it’s a great idea to offer them choice, but lots of times, they’re choosing to throw that away. So, the teachers are working with them on that, too. They can present them with proposals like, ‘You might not be so hungry if you would take twice as many vegetables.’ Sometimes, they don’t see that option and we want to teach them about being good citizens. If you’re a citizen, you write about how you feel about things. You do have a choice in how you respond to things.”

And, there is no scarcity of views awaiting expression at LEMS. According to Figenser, student responses to their newer, healthier culinary selections have varied widely.

“There have been different responses,” Figenser said. “Some of them really like it. I’ve seen kids respond favorably to some of the choices. They’ll be like, ‘What is this? I’ve never tried this fruit before.’ Then, they’ll try it and they’ll actually like it. So, I like the idea of having them try new vegetables and fruits. It’s just hard for them and it’s hard for us in the school to encourage them to do that. So, we would appreciate any help we can receive from home. If they come home and complain about being hungry, ask, ‘Did you have your two servings of vegetables and fruits?’ Lots of times, they will say, ‘No, I didn’t.’ So, we’re trying to encourage them that way.”

Elaborating on LEMS’ health-oriented menu, Food Service Director Shirley Huizenga said, “Basically, the grains have been increased slightly from last year. The meat portion has pretty much stayed the same. Vegetables have increased. We now give K-8 three-fourths of a cup of vegetables and high school receives a full cup. With fruit, K-8 gets a half-of-a-cup and high school gets a full cup. They all get the same amount of milk. Each food group is represented.”

In keeping with the themes of democracy and choice, the LEMS kitchen offers students a varied selection of healthy dishes.

“We usually have two different kinds of vegetables they can choose from,” Huizenga said. “They usually have two or more fruits that they can choose from. So, they can make a choice.”

Of course, choice is a two-edged sword. While LEMS students are free to select healthy foods, they are also free to eschew them. According to Huizenga, that happens quite often.

“Typically, kids throw away a lot of fruits and vegetables,” Huizenga said. “They’ll eat the meat and the bread, but they’ll throw away the veggies.”

Given this tendency to jettison fruits and vegetables, the LEMS kitchen staff has had to rely on a relatively limited culinary arsenal to enhance the healthier dishes.

“We’re allowed to use many kinds of spices and herbs and seasonings,” Huizenga said. “We have a limit on the sodium. We can’t add any more salt than what is permitted by the guidelines we have.”

In addition to a dash of seasoning, LEMS vegetable dishes benefit from a ubiquitous fixture of America’s culinary landscape: Ranch dressing. Over the years, polyvalent applications have been developed for this condiment. It has drenched everything from bread sticks to snack chips. According to Figenser, Ranch dressing has helped to reinvigorate the otherwise waning appeal of greens to LEMS students.

“There’s almost always a salad and we do see lots of them choosing salad now,” Figenser said. “They’ve discovered Ranch dressing and how that can be your friend.”

Flavor-enhancing condiments are not the only incentives that LEMS educators are relying on. Figenser stated that parental engagement is also integral to engendering better dietary practices among students.

“We would love for parents to really talk about what their children are eating,” Figenser said. “We could use all of the help we can get from that. I think serving fruits and vegetables at home could help change kids’ habits. We’d love to have more volunteers in at lunchtime to help kids choose and monitor the lunchroom with us. It could go a long way to helping kids make better decisions. Our teachers are already busy teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. Now, they have to concern themselves with nutrition. So, the parents’ involvement is very helpful.”

The USDA-mandated calorie requirement for lunches in grade levels K-5 is between 550 and 650. For grade levels 6-8, the minimum calorie requirement is between 600 and 700. The high school student body, which encompasses grades 9-12, requires between 750 and 850 calories.

For the complete article see the 10-10-2012 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 10-10-2012 paper.

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