Originally Published: August 3, 2013 6 a.m.
Pack a lunch or hit up the cafeteria? That's the question many parents face at the beginning of every school year. Both choices, according to experts in the field of nutrition, can be good ones.
When packing a lunch, Yavapai County Community Health Services Health Educator Heather Klomparens said you can't go wrong with fruits and vegetables.
"Variety helps a lot. Get as much fruits and vegetables as you can in there, and trying new things besides just the peanut butter and jelly every day. Use whole-wheat bread if you're going to do sandwiches, make homemade desserts if you're going to pack a dessert," she said. "When I pack my own kids' lunch I try to do things that are fun, like finger foods, crackers and cheese, and sometimes I will use leftovers. It never hurts to turn things over and look at the label to see if they have a lot of added ingredients that aren't necessarily healthy."
As a health educator with the county, Klomparens said her focus is on nutrition and education.
Klomparens often visits schools in the county as a guest speaker, where she stresses the importance of nutrition to students.
Grant funding allows her to visit schools where 50 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-fee cafeteria lunches.
"We generally teach about nutrition in a fun and positive way, in getting more fruits and vegetables and eating lean proteins, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and avoiding sugary drinks and lot of sweets. We try not to get too negative," Klomparens said.
Parent Justin Feldt said he has no worries when it comes to his daughter eating from the school cafeteria rather than bringing a lunchbox.
"I understand they have nutritionally-balanced meals for the kids," Feldt said.
Parent Delores Alvarez said her daughter will also eat at the cafeteria during the school year.
"They're pretty good, actually - good portions and lots of protein. Preparing and packing a lunch is a lot (of effort) and (the cafeteria) saves money for me," Alvarez said.
Parent Heather Hilbert, meanwhile, plans to pack a lunch for her daughter.
"I'll make her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, put in fruit snacks and fruit juice," she said.
Sherri Wilson, director of food services for the Prescott Unified School District, said schools in the district plan their meals around the ever-changing decisions of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
"We're on the national school lunch program, so we follow the guidelines the USDA puts into effect," Wilson said.
That program, she said, has changed quite a bit since First Lady Michelle Obama enacted the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, and it continues to evolve.
"Breakfast is changing this year. Last year we saw lunch change quite a bit. It went to a component-based meal. Before you had to have a milk and everything included to make the meal, then it went to the 'My Plate' program, which was five components, and they had to choose three of those choices. One needed to be a fruit and a vegetable. The meat, the grains, the fruits and vegetables, and the dairy, is what makes up that meal. That's how we base our menus."
For different age groups, there are different calorie levels, which means meals for students in the tri-city area are planned accordingly. High school students, for instance, will find different menu choices than elementary school students.
PUSD officials are also working on a farm grant that could bring locally grown fruits and vegetables into school cafeterias.
"That's pretty exciting. We're hoping we get that grant," Wilson said.
No matter which way a parent goes, packing a lunch or using the cafeteria, Abia Judd Elementary School nurse Lavinia Lucescu stressed the importance of water.
"Just drink lots water. That's the main thing. What I see the most is dehydration," Lucescu said.