FRIDAY, May 13, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Every day, Carol Chong oversees the serving of about 300,000 meals to hungry students in the fourth-largest school district in the United States.
Chong, a registered dietitian and director of food and menu management for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, has a food budget of about $60 million to meet that goal.
The move by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make school meals healthier will be a challenge, Chong said, with cost the main problem.
"It doesn't seem like it, but you have a very small amount of money to work with," she said. "Healthier foods tend to be more expensive. They are more perishable, with a shorter shelf life. They can't be processed as much."
However, Miami-Dade County is fairly far along in terms of meeting proposed USDA guidelines for healthy school meals, Chong said, because the district has been improving its menu for years.
"A lot of the changes that have been proposed, we are ahead of the curve," she said. "I think many school districts are like that. A lot of us have been proactive."
For example, several years ago the district went from whole milk to 2 percent milk and then to 1 percent milk and skim milk. "Even our flavored chocolate milk is at a half-percent fat content," she said.
Standard lunchroom offerings have been improved as well. The district serves up a reduced-fat, all-beef hot dog now and has gotten rid of processed chicken nuggets in favor of whole-muscle chicken tenders, Chong said.
They even serve a healthier pizza these days. The crust contains up to 51 percent whole grains, and the cheese is reduced-fat. "We've been doing that for five years," she said.
Trans fats have been eliminated. "We haven't had trans fat in our food in three years," Chong said. "We had all manufacturers take them out. We had people like Frito-Lay having to change their products because we wouldn't sell them." Because of the size of the school district, she said, the companies complied.
All the meal changes occurred under the noses of the kids, who apparently were none the wiser.
"No, I don't tell them. Why would I? And they don't notice," Chong said, laughing. "We haven't advertised it -- because if they knew it was better for them, they wouldn't eat it."
And that's a problem for the future, she said. Kids aren't learning how to eat healthy at home so schools are feeling pressure to step up and teach them about nutrition -- if only the funding were there.
"It's part of the educational process to teach these kids about healthy eating, which is the weakest link because we don't have the funding or the staff for nutrition education," Chong said. "The concern about obesity is not within a majority of the parents. It's a concern with community leaders and health experts. If it were a parental concern, you'd see parents practicing better nutrition within their own households."
A companion article explains the federal government's efforts to improve school nutrition.