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School Systems Struggle With Lunchroom Costs
Date:5/13/2011

By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, May 13 (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
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