First-grader Olivia Sullivant eats her whole-grain pancakes at Roosevelt Elementary School in Medford Tuesday. The school is using fruit toppings instead of syrup to help lower calories and boost nutritional value. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

Healthy meals pass test

In elementary school cafeterias in Medford, Eagle Point and the Phoenix-Talent system, the days of yellow, artificial nacho cheese you could slurp up with a straw ended this fall.

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"We are using a little bit of it in the secondary schools but not much," says Jeff Ashmun, Southern Oregon senior general manager for Sodexo Inc., which serves meals in the three school districts. "We are phasing it out in the secondary menu this year."

Indicative of a greater national trend, many Jackson County school districts are offering healthier fare at the cafeteria line, slicing off more fat and beefing up nutritional value in foods.

For elementary schools served by Sodexo, that's meant changes such as real, shredded cheddar cheese and whole kidney and black beans on the nachos and frozen berries with no sugar additives instead of syrup on the whole grain pancakes.

"They're yummy because they're like syrup," says kindergartner James Alan Douglas III of the blueberries and strawberries staining his stack of fluffy pancakes at Medford's Roosevelt Elementary School Tuesday.

The pancakes and the patty of turkey sausage that comes with them were available last year, but the topping has changed from artificial maple syrup to the fresh berries, says Sherri Sexton, a Sodexo dietitian.

The meal now has about 420 calories and 28 grams of fat. Changing the topping cut about 85 calories from the meal and plumped up nutrition with vitamins and fiber from the berries, according to Sodexo.

After students take their hot meal from the line, they go through a salad bar to select fruits and vegetables for the empty space in their plates.

During the past five years, Sodexo has been working to diversify school salad bars by adding more color and more items students might be less familiar with. Last winter, for instance, turnips, leeks and jicama were part of the spread, Ashmun says.

All whole-grain foods also were introduced five years ago, Ashmun says.

The effort gained momentum this summer when one of Sodexo's corporate chefs trained about 40 Southern Oregon cafeteria workers to make more foods from scratch such as the fiesta beans, he says.

James' mom, Amy Douglas, is delighted by the changes.

"He eats a lot of fruit, vegetables and whole grains at home," Douglas says. "Kids need to learn to make healthier choices."

The new nachos, called "fiesta beans and cheese over tortilla," provide about 353 calories and less than 15 grams of fat, compared to 389 calories and 20 grams of fat in the former version.

"Nobody is missing anything," says Roosevelt education assistant Lori Whitehead, who helps supervise the lunchroom each day. "I have never heard any one of the students say they missed artificial nacho cheese. I've seen a lot of enthusiasm about the healthier food, especially with the older kids."

But for some students, the healthier cuisine has been an acquired taste.

"When we changed to whole grains, we lost a lot of kids," Ashmun says. "It takes time to change the taste so we still 'stealth' in the nutrition.

"We add things to the recipes the kids can't see, like carrots and diced tomatoes in the taco meat. Shhh, don't tell them."

Movements to restore purity and simplicity to the nation's food supply and concerted efforts to fight childhood obesity have fueled the hunger for fresh, whole foods in school cafeterias, prompting companies such as Sodexo to go above and beyond federal nutritional requirements.

"The community as a whole is moving in that direction as we are as parents," Ashmun says. "That's what we want."

As in the rest of the nation, the evolution toward healthier foods in Southern Oregon has been gradual.

School districts' budget troubles and difficulty in procuring some food items in the necessary quantity have slowed the process, but more and more pressure has been placed on food producers to provide healthier food.

"Whole-grain, whole-chicken nuggets weren't available for a while, and we told our processor (Tyson Foods Inc.) we were going to have to stop using them if they didn't change the way they were made," Ashmun says.

Changes also have taken place at secondary schools, where cafeterias have focused on making made-to-order meals such as stir-fry and grilled sandwiches that allow students to see what's being put into their food.

"There's no mystery to the food," Ashmun says. "They see it being made right in front of them."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail

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