Elementary students embrace healthy fare at lunchtime

Almost every student at Island Park Elementary has an opinion on the Four Weeks of Finer Foods menu being served at all Mercer Island elementary schools this month.

They can’t wait to talk about it. They raise their hands and wave and say “Pick me! Pick me!” Several stop on their way to recess.

Their reviews are mostly positive. They loved the baked potato bar. They like the fresh fruit and vegetables on the salad bar. The whole-grain pizza is less greasy.

“I like the potato because it’s really clean and fresh,” said one Island Park student.

Each elementary PTA donated money for a pilot project this month providing higher quality, healthier foods to students. District food service providers are discovering what the children will eat by providing a wide array of “finer foods.” The Finer Foods subsidies come out to about an extra $.25 per meal. Parents might be asked to pay for the improvements next year.

“The idea is to research what kids find tasty and what they will eat of the healthier foods,” said Island Park Principal Kathy Morrison. “It’s a matter of finding out what’s feasible. The feedback I’ve gotten, I think a lot of parents would be willing to pay more.”

The project is part of the implementation of the district-wide Wellness Policy.

This month’s menu includes items like hummus with pita bread, whole wheat bagels, stir fry, veggie burgers, clam chowder, chicken parmesan, baked potato, tuna salad on wheat and baked fish tacos.

The students who eat the cafeteria food then answer survey questions so Chartwells, the school district’s food service provider, knows what they liked and didn’t liked.

“It is really a trial-and-error month,” said Rolando Visitacion, district food services director.

Those leading the pilot project said their goals now are to figure out what healthier items they can keep on the menu for this school year after the pilot ends, and how they might add more next year.

They are particularly interested in keeping the salad bar, where more nutrient-rich leafy greens like spinach and romaine lettuce have replaced iceberg lettuce, and fruits like pineapple and apple slices sit alongside carrot sticks and cucumber slices.

“One mom told me her son said ‘I can’t have dessert, I need a banana!’” said parent Kathy Middleton, a leader on the Finer Foods project. “This is beyond a health educator’s dreams.”

On an early January day, this reporter filled her plate with vegetable stir fry and white rice, a romaine salad with ranch dressing, apple, orange and cucumber slices, baby carrots, pineapple and an apple juice to drink at Island Park Elementary.

“The croutons are a little bigger. The salad’s a little greener,” said Evelyn Tobiason, a second-grader at IP.

Others said they loved the salad bar improvements. “It makes me want to get more food from the salad bar,” said Mckenzie Krause, an Island Park fifth-grader. “I used to get like a little salad, but now I get a big one,” said Caitlin Cox, a fifth-grader at Island Park. “It gives us vegetarians more options,” said Marcus Schoenfeld, an Island Park third-grader.

This month, staff at the schools are occasionally showing funny cartoon videos during lunch to teach students about healthy habits, like the films “Veggie Believer” and “Hand Washer.”

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