New school year, new eats. What is JCPS serving?

Nine in 10 kids don't eat enough vegetables and gobble too much salt. One in three children inside Jefferson County Public Schools carries too much weight.

Those statistics worry Liz Cannon, whose daughter Elise Cannon weighs 50 pounds - just right, her doctor says, for a 7-year-old who is four feet tall.

"She runs. She jumps. She's right at or a little underweight for her age," Liz Cannon said. "Obesity is pretty huge here in Kentucky."

Added sugar is a leading cause of childhood obesity that portends heart disease, diabetes and ill health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And JCPS' obesity rate is mirrored in nationwide obesity statistics that are "triple the rate from the prior generation," the CDC say.

On Sunday night or Monday mornings before the school week begins, Cannon opens the JCPS NutriSlice app on her phone to check out what's on the steam tables in the Dixie Elementary cafeteria line. From a drop down menu, Cannon selects the school, "elementary," then the meal "lunch." A calendar opens to show each meal that month. A click on Wednesday shows chicken nuggets or a corn dog as main courses.

That means Elise will likely pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for herself with some pretzels, dried apricots and a brownie on the way to her Valley Station school.

"We are very careful about the products that they eat," Liz Cannon said of her family, who avoid processed food and pork as a matter of their Seventh Day Adventist Faith.

The start of school marks a great time to fortify healthy eating habits. In its third year at JCPS, NutriSlice lays down what's inside the milk, grains, vegetable, fruit and meat or meat alternative required for school lunch by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Nutrislice is a wonderful product," JCPS Nutrition Center manager Daniel Ellnor said. "It allows parents to quickly see what's there for lunch. We are committed to buying the best possible foods for students."

'Hungry kids can't learn'

In 2015, Nutrislice grabbed nearly one half million views from 23,000 users, school district spokeswoman Jennifer Brislin said.

More than halfway through 2016, the school district has already logged almost as many views and logins from 20,000 users, she added.

"We're probably on pace to nearly double last year's use," she said of the app for which JCPS pays about $15,000 annually.

Oldham County Schools also offers NutriSliceand a similar app called Web Menus is new this year to the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation. Elsewhere in the region, school districts in Bullitt County, and Clark County, Ind., post static menus on their websites available for download or printing.

For students at Highland Middle School, parents can expect to see Cheesy Chicken Nachos on the menu in August, which blends one serving of locally grown butternut squash and sweet potatoes combined with USDA-issue chicken and cheese to serve up 352 calories, 674 milligrams of salt, 18 grams of fat and 19 grams of protein - something the school district wants parents to know.

Making nutrition information transparent is part of the mission at JCPS, which aims to increase meal appeal and the number of students who line up in school cafeterias and leave bagged lunches at home, Ellnor said. Seventy-one percent of JCPS students left bagged lunches at home last year, up from 65 percent five years ago.

"Last year we served more Mandarin oranges and apples than we served Pop-Tarts and doughnuts," Ellnor said. "You don't change the food system overnight, but you do it little bit by little bit."

A federal mandate since the 1960s to battle hunger in schools, the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs require that meals be served, providing cash assistance and free USDA commodity foods, such as chicken nuggets and cheese, to help school districts balance their budgets.

The more kids that eat in the lunch line, the more federal reimbursement received. That bottom line, and concern that every child is fed, fuels JCPS' drive to maximize kids who dine on cafeteria fare, Brislin said.

"We know that hungry kids can't learn," she added.

Source: Courier-Journal