Healthy, balanced meal available at school lunchrooms

If you are like most adults in the community, it probably has been years since you set foot in a school cafeteria. As we head into a new school year, this seems a perfect opportunity to let you know the important role today's school nutrition program plays in supporting student learning and building healthier communities.

The Gwinnett County School Nutrition Program is preparing for another great school year. Come Aug. 13, you can enter any of our 106 cafeterias and see students enjoying tasty, healthy meals.

Over the years we have made great strides in offering meals that are both nutritious and healthy, and the types of meals our students want to eat.

Our goal is to change our students' approach to eating by leading them in the direction of low-fat options, whole grains, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Our school menus support this effort. We are constantly searching for foods that taste great and are nutritious as well. So, while we offer chicken nuggets and other student favorites, you won't find deep fryers in our kitchens.

Our staff of nutrition experts, which includes a registered dietitian, analyze menus regularly for nutrient content to ensure compliance with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

When adding new products to the menu, preference is given to foods with high nutrient density and foods that meet our low-sodium, low-fat and high-fiber goals. Some of the nutritious offerings you'll find in our program are:

' Reduced-fat cheese and low-sodium cheese used when possible

' 2 percent and skim milk in a variety of kid-friendly flavors

' Whole grain and wheat buns and breads

' A minimum of five fruits and vegetables offered daily

' Low-fat and fat-free salad dressings offered daily

In addition to serving meals, our cafeteria staff of more than 1,500 dedicated professionals provides nutrition education lessons to students at all grade levels -lessons we hope will last a lifetime.

This year alone, Gwinnett's School Nutrition Program will commit approximately $500,000 to expanding nutrition education in classrooms and cafeterias.

Our nutrition focus this year will be the food pyramid. MyPyramid is the latest version of the food pyramid put out by the USDA in 2005.

It is an extremely important and useful tool when educating children on how to eat and live healthy. This NEAT (Nutrition Education and Training) project will teach the pyramid in segments beginning in August and ending in May by way of lesson plans, bulletin boards, creative serving line information, signage, announcements, presentation and taste tests.

We want Gwinnett County students to have the best lunch program in the country and to be the most educated on nutrition and what impact good - and bad - nutrition can have on their lives.

We also want parents to be involved in their child's school nutrition experience. Take a look at our Nutri-Cafe at www.gcsnp.org to get nutritional values of items found in our school cafeterias. You also can keep track of your child's account balance by going to www.mealpay.com.

Don't forget to talk to your child about what they are eating at school, the choices they are making in food and snacks, as well as what they are learning about the food pyramid.

And, for those of you who haven't visited a Gwinnett school cafeteria, make plans to eat with your child or grandchild. We look forward to serving you!

Ken Yant is the director of the Gwinnett County Public Schools' School Nutrition Program.