Graphic: School lunches steadily more healthy
Graphic: W.Va. school food by the numbers
ALUM CREEK, W.Va. -- Kindergartners swarmed around the salad bar in the Midway Elementary cafeteria, so many, two adults had to help. The kids pointed at raw vegetable and fruit slices - peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, carrots, spinach, kiwi, oranges, apples.
"I want those orange things," one child said, pointing at a melon. The next loaded up on peppers and celery sticks.
At the tables, other kindergartners made inroads on the main dish, lasagna Florentine and Caesar salad, ignoring the salad bar.
"Either way, they eat good food," Principal Cheryl Workman said. "We give them choices."
She drifted around the cafeteria, smiling and chatting, looking for kids who weren't eating lasagna, encouraging them to try a bite. "A lot of kids eat a fast-food diet, and they're leery of food they're not familiar with. If we can get them to try it, lots of times, they like it."
Last summer, seven of West Virginia's poorest counties - Lincoln, Mingo, McDowell, Clay, Gilmer, Fayette and Mason - agreed to try cooking lunch and breakfast with fresh ingredients all year, five days a week. They would offer meals free to all students who want to eat.
They are guinea pigs. State schools Superintendent Jorea Marple wants to spread healthy cooking statewide. Their challenge: Prove it can be done. Avoid fattening, processed, prepackaged food. Find things kids like, and stay within budget.
Marple is concerned about obese children at risk for future diabetes, children who come to school hungry, and the impact on children's schoolwork:
"When I first heard we were going to do this, I thought it was going to be impossible," Workman said. "I worried about schedules and money and would the kids like it. But after we tweaked the schedule a couple of times, it's been great."
Since September, the number of children eating school breakfast in the seven counties has nearly doubled - from 42 percent to 75 percent.
The federal government reimburses by meal, so the counties received more than a million extra federal dollars to pay all or most of the extra expenses.
"The news is good, very good," said Rick Goff, director of the state Office of Child Nutrition. "This is a potential game-changer if it goes statewide."
In Lincoln County alone, the number of children eating school breakfast more than doubled in the first four months, from 40 percent in 2010 to 88 percent in 2011. Lunch-eaters jumped from 67 percent to 80 percent.
"West Virginia is to be congratulated," said James Harmon, regional nutrition director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "I'm not aware of another state that has taken the initiative to reach more children while improving the nutritional quality of school meals."
"Now that we know it works, we plan to offer cook-from-scratch training for cooks in every county next summer," Goff said.
"We have a lot of work to do. A few counties are cooking with fresh ingredients 95 to 100 percent of the time, others do it half the time, others are 25 percent or lower.
"We'll know the complete story [for the seven-county project] in a few months when we see if the tardies decreased, behavior problems diminished and absenteeism lowered. From what we hear, the answer will be yes."
The state Department of Education Research Division is evaluating the project, talking with parents, teachers, kids, looking at attendance and discipline records. Next fall, they will look at WESTEST scores.
The seven-county project stands in sharp contrast to Kanawha County. Last fall, Kanawha cooks were abruptly ordered at the start of school to cook from scratch, but given no extra training or explanation. Unhappy cooks packed school board meetings to complain. The county backed off.
There have been no such protests in demonstration counties. Their cooks got advance training. "We were all on board when school started," Miller said. "We had training, recipes, equipment." They talked about childhood obesity.
Isn't it easier just to open prepackaged lasagna and heat it in a microwave?
"Yes, that's easier, but this is better for the kids," Midway head cook Diana Adkins said.
Adkins has strong words for cooks who say scratch cooking forces them to make tasteless food. "There's no excuse for that. We can flavor food with all kinds of herbs, garlic, lemon and so forth. If you're a cook, you make it taste good."
She worries about kids eating junk food. In 2010, 30 percent of Lincoln fifth-graders had high blood pressure. Twenty seven percent were obese. Adkins knows they are at higher risk of diabetes and heart attacks.
Principal Workman credits several things for the boom in eaters:
"Kids are going home and saying, 'I tried this, and I tried that,'" Workman said. "I got a call from a mother who said her son came home and asked if they could have asparagus for dinner. She said, 'I never in the world would have thought he'd eat that.'"
Some children complain that servings are too small.
"We're not going to offer super-size portions," said Rick Goff, state Office of Child Nutrition director. "They can have all the seconds on salad they want. We want to help solve a problem, not contribute to it."
This is school food?