Region 16 cuts back on unhealthy foods

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Local students will have to go outside of their schools if they hope to satisfy their junk food fixes.

Region 16, along with the state of Connecticut, is cracking down on the quality of food served in school and limiting students’ choices to healthy foods.

Earlier this month, the state Department of Education updated its list of acceptable foods and beverages for the upcoming school year. Hundreds of items were deleted from the list, including notorious junk foods like potato chips, sugar-based cereals and cookies.

The DOE also removed many items which could be viewed as healthy but did not fit its requirements. Foods such as Kellogg’s Special K Bars were banned because they contain sorbitol, a sugar alcohol. Other snacks like General Mills Nature Valley Chewy Trail Mix Bars were cast out for exceeding standards for percentage of calories from fat and saturated fat.

The region is deemed a “Healthy School District” by the state and receives state funding to adhere to all restrictions put forth by the DOE, but Region 16 officials have chosen to take the matter a step further and add additional restrictions for their school system.

The regional restrictions only apply to a la carte items, and will not alter the daily school hot lunches, but Region 16 Director of Food Services Victoria Biello feels it will make a difference and the removal of further unhealthy foods is imperative, because, she said, if the food is there, students will eat it.

“We need to exclude these certain foods,” said Biello. “If you realize what the majority of the kids are eating, it’s the unhealthy stuff. We need to take that away and change the approach.”

The Woodland Regional High School deli, for example, will be upgrading to Boar’s Head brand meat. The change will replace the past meat choices with a leaner and healthier version.

“I think this is a great thing,” said Superintendent James Agostine. “If it’s a better product it will be better received. I know when I was at Pomperaug, we switched over to Boar’s Head meat and the kids really loved it.”

There will, however, be a limit as to what meats students can order on their sandwiches. Only turkey, ham and chicken will be served, while other, fattier meats will be excluded.

“I stood outside the deli line last year and I saw what kids were ordering,” Biello said. “It seemed like every other kid was getting pepperoni, salami or bologna. It’s something we need to get away from.”

Serving these meats once or twice a month was also discussed.

Additionally, students who once had the option of choosing white or wheat rolls will now have only wheat and whole-grain options.

The food services department is also attempting to implement salad bars in schools one day a week. Salad bars are a permanent fixture in some Region 16 schools.

The region is also seeking an increase in participation for the current breakfast program, which approximately 18-20 percent of students now participate in.
“The breakfast program is very important,” Biello said. “It’s the most important meal of the day and essential for students to be well-nourished. A complete breakfast not only improves a diet but has been proven to help students excel in school.”

Another change, which will add convenience for parents while also allowing them to monitor what their child is eating, is the implementation of an online pay system. Starting in the upcoming school year, parents will have the option of buying their students’ lunches online using their Visa, MasterCard, Discover or American Express credit cards. An account will be created, allowing parents to view their child’s’ account balance and update it periodically. It will also permit parents to see what foods their child is buying.

“Parents will be able to see exactly what and when their child is eating,” Biello said. “Of course, they wont be eating junk food because they’re wont be any offered.”

Some board members voiced criticism of the plan, arguing extensive regulation is unnecessary and may not be something the region should be enforcing so strictly.

“This is not a private school,” said Priscilla Cretella, Vice-Chair of the Board of Education. “It’s a public school, and I’m not sure we should be enforcing some of the things that we are. It’s getting to be a little much here.”

Biello acknowledges that her drive to get fatty foods out of schools may rub some people the wrong way, but feels she is doing the right thing by the students.

“I’m not very popular or liked by a lot of people,” she said. “But at the end of the day, I can rest my head on the pillow knowing I’m doing something good and helping these kids.”