Alabama school took healthy steps in cafeteria a decade ago

Monday, August 29th 2005, 2:50 pm
By: News On 6

OPELIKA, Ala. (AP) _ A school system in the heart of the Deep South has made some tough cafeteria choices. Deep fryers are out. So are soda machines. So are the prized, special brownies with 47 grams of fat.

What's most remarkable, though, is that Opelika schools took these steps 10 years ago _ far ahead of fears about childhood obesity and ahead of Alabama's new rules on lunchroom nutrition.

``This system was ahead of time,'' said Melanie Payne, child nutrition program director for Opelika schools, which serve 4,500 students. ``This school system is unique in how it approaches things.''

Payne said the percentage of students who buy lunches has remained at about 90 percent over the years despite changes in recipes. The secret to Opelika's success is pretty simple _ the cooks don't sacrifice taste and they get to know their students.

The lunchroom staff also gets continuous training by professional chefs and has learned to use a variety of spices to fill the void left by ham hocks.

The changes didn't come easy, however, at a school system where the high school used to fry enough french fries to feed each student a pound a day.

Opelika revamped its kitchens when the federal government changed its rules to allow schools to offer less meat and fattening foods as long as children got the protein, calcium and vitamins they needed.

The first step was to chuck the fryers. That led to a petition by high school students, who took their complaint to the Opelika school board. Payne answered with a letter ``stressing the importance of good nutrition'' and she says that was the last major gripe from anybody.

Next, Payne got a deal with a farmers' co-op which delivers fresh, prepackaged collards, green beans and other seasonal vegetables to the lunchrooms.

The first few adjustment years were tough, not just for the kids, but for cafeteria workers who were forced to tweak their high-fat recipes for fried chicken, rolls and cookies.

``I had a lunch lady who retired because she couldn't put straight butter on the rolls,'' said Payne, who was honored by the state school board this month for her work in improving school lunches.

The middle school was known for its special brownies, dubbed the ``best thing on the face of the earth'' by locals. ``We don't have those any more,'' Payne said.

Now schools statewide are taking similar steps and going even farther in phasing out foods high in fat and sugar. The new regulations have brought out critics even in Opelika, namely the high school students.

Opelika has yanked a longtime Southern tradition _ sweetened iced tea. And it's replaced regular chips with the baked variety.

``Tell me what a baked Dorito is. If I want that, I'll go home and put my Doritos in the oven,'' said 15-year-old Helena Frye, a sophomore at Opelike High School, who misses the sweet tea, too.

Stephanie Marlett, a 16-year-old who said she tries to eat healthy, also wants the beloved tea back. ``I really don't like that they cut it out,'' she said.

But Payne doesn't panic. Experience tells her the students will tolerate the new changes and eventually learn to appreciate them.

In a school system where 60 percent of students get free or reduced-price meals, a healthy lunch may be the only balanced meal they get during the day, Payne said.

Cafeteria manager Dianne Smith said she has even managed to get elementary school kids to enjoy low-fat Caesar salads sprinkled with oregano.

``The children will go, 'Ooh what's that? I don't want that.' But you have to get them to try it,'' Smith said.

The trick is to get them to try a small taste first. With a little repetition and a big smile it usually works, Smith said.

Among the more drastic changes was replacing baked french fries with sweet potato sticks steamed with orange juice and cinnamon. The verdict?

``Get them to try one or two sticks and 9 times out of 10,'' she said, ``they're hooked.''