By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Sixth-grader Katie McGinnis took one look at the school cafeteria turkey sandwich and baby carrots and tossed them back in the brown bag.
Instead, she took a few more gulps of her grape juice.
"They should have more chocolate cake," said the lean 12-year-old during the Parham Elementary summer lunch program Monday in Evanston.
But that's just what some health experts say schools should not have, even though more schools nationally and around the Tristate are letting students decide what they want to eat.
A study on school lunch choices released Monday showed that students who have a la carte choices at lunch tend to choose fatty snacks and fewer fruits and vegetables.
That worries health experts as child obesity continues to rise.
University of Minnesota researchers collected data in 16 schools, surveying 598 students in the Twin Cities area in 1998.
The study is in the July issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
Thirteen of the schools offered programs where students could choose their entire meal selections, including burgers or pizza slices, or buy snack items in addition to their nutritionally-balanced cafeteria lunches.
"When you looked at the items being offered as a la carte, they were predominantly high-fat snacks and sweetened drinks," said Martha Y. Kubik, assistant professor in the School of Nursing at the University of Minnesota.
Middle school students who didn't have a la carte selections ate nearly an entire extra daily serving of fruits and vegetables.
Districts around the Tristate typically offer nutritionally-balanced plate lunches for elementary students. They often don't offer a la carte items for elementary students or regulate how many a la carte items elementary students can purchase.
Cincinnati Public Schools offer a nutritionally balanced plate lunch to kindergarten to eighth-grade students. High school students have the option of the plate lunch or other a la carte items; the district encourages the plate lunch.
But many other school districts allow middle, junior high and high school students to choose the regulated plate lunch, a la carte choices or both.
That's where bad choices can happen.
Lakota, Mason, Milford and Princeton offer a la carte options to junior high and high school students, but all say they push students to select the nutritionally-balanced meal.
The schools are also working harder to make sure more menu choices are healthy.
Lakota offers Caesar salads and grilled chicken salads.
Princeton offers pretzels, fruit roll-ups, a frozen fruit cup and frozen yogurt. The district does not offer soda.
Milford offers baked French fries, instead of the deep-fried version.
Mason also tries to make its meals healthier, such as low-fat cheese pizza or tacos with low-fat hamburger meat or chicken. The district offers more fresh fruit and vegetables than canned ones and tries to push fruit choices by cutting and peeling oranges, slicing kiwi and other fruit so it's easy to eat.
Some school officials here say offering a la carte items is a way to ensure that growing kids - especially the picky ones - eat something.
"At the junior high level, the whole purpose of selling a la carte is because they are going through growth spurts," said Darlene Hicks, supervisor in the Office of Food Service Management at Mason Schools.
"Many times, they want more food or need more food. Rather than making them pay for an entire second lunch of which they might not eat everything, they can buy a lunch and then buy a la carte items."
That's not to say that kids don't occasionally sneak by with just a bagel and bottle of water. If school officials notice a child's eating habits are erratic, a school counselor is notified.
"I think it's good idea," Hicks said of a la carte programs, "but it needs to be monitored."
Martha Y. Kubik, assistant professor in the School of Nursing at the University of Minnesota, has some suggestions on what parents can do to help their kids eat healthier in school:
Ask kids what they are eating in school and why they make the food choices they make. Discuss healthier lunch choices, like baked potato chips or fruit.
Visit the school and check out the cafeteria food.
Consider joining a food advisory council at school to influence healthy school food.
Display good eating behavior at home and take kids grocery shopping to let them decide what healthy foods they like to eat.
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