What's on the plate of Superintendent James Scully and first lady Michelle Obama? Your children's food.
In light of reforms proposed by the USDA and a heavily publicized healthy-foods campaign by Mrs. Obama, Scully said he wants to take a closer look at meals offered to students throughout the district to ensure they're in line with national suggestions that soon enough will become mandates.
Scully said that throughout his career as a superintendent he has wanted to help reform meal offerings. Now, with national attention on the matter, he feels the time's right.
"In the past it's always agitated me," he said. "Are we offering what's right for kids?"
Scully's primary complaint is with limited options at lunchtime and his observation that many meals are heavy on cheese. Scully said he took a close look at meals from November to December of 2010 to inspire his campaign.
A typical week's lunch menu accompanies this article. At the high school level, almost every meal is either made with cheese as an ingredient, or cheese is offered to students as a selection.
Scully is not alone in his aspirations for a healthier meal time.
In December 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law the "Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act," primarily at the urging of his wife and the bipartisan support of the Senate. The bill will provide $4.5 billion in aid over the next decade to school meal programs, the first time in 30 years such programs have received additional funding from the government.
Most notably, the law authorizes the USDA to set nutritional standards on foods served during the school day and to audit school districts every three years to ensure food providers comply with the regulations. The law will also ensure parents have easier access to "nutritional information" provided by the district's food suppliers. No timeframe has been set for these regulations to go into effect.
The USDA has already made the first move in reforming school meals nationwide however.
A report issued by the USDA, "Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs" notes that the agency wants to bring schools nationwide into compliance with the new regulations, and update the agency's 2005 guidelines, as early as April this year.
Noting that 32 percent of all children between the ages of 6 and 19 suffer from obesity, these regulations intend to lower the amount of saturated fats, trans-fats, sodium and whole milk from school lunches while simultaneously promoting larger selections of fruits, vegetables, skim milk and whole grains in meals.
Gus Travassos, Food Service director for Haverhill, said that Whitsons, the corporation that supplies meals for the district, has already attempted to align itself within these guides long before they became a hot topic.
"All our entrees are served with side options such as low-fat milk, fresh vegetables and whole fruit selections. All of these options are sourced locally whenever seasonally available," he said. "Another important aspect of our program is the nutritional education materials we use to help students select a healthy meal. We have posters describing the components of a meal, explaining the food pyramid and educating students on proper portions, for example. In elementary schools, we use our nationally recognized and award-winning Nutrition Safari program and in secondary schools, our Smart Choices program to educate students and reinforce healthy eating practices."
He noted that for the last five years Whitsons has used low-fat mozzarella cheese in its dishes. At the elementary schools, children are offered one meal a day with no alternatives. Middle and high school students, however, typically have a daily special along with several staples to choose from including sandwiches, salads, pizzas and tacos.
Whitsons, based in Islandia, N.Y., has been Haverhill's food provider for the past two years. The company serves more than 70 other districts throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.
Beyond inspecting menus, Scully said the administration has attempted to remove soda and snack vending machines in schools throughout the city, but noted there are still "a few remaining."