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Schools win national nutrition award

LAWRENCEVILLE - The nutritious options in Gwinnett's school cafeterias helped the district win a national award this week from a nonprofit organization that promotes healthy diets.

Gwinnett County Public Schools was the grand prize winner for public schools in the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine's 2009 Golden Carrot Awards.

Gwinnett schools offer healthy vegetarian options, including hummus and baked pita chips, black bean empanadas, pasta with vegetarian meatballs, veggie burgers and vegetarian Chick'n tenders. The school system began serving vegetarian entrees two years ago, and 600,000 servings were sold last year, said Karen Crawford, a registered dietitian and Gwinnett's nutrition education coordinator.

"We know that a lot of students are eating lunch with us, so of course we want to serve them the healthiest items we can," Crawford said.

Gwinnett schools served more than 21.3 million student lunches last year. The most popular entree - pizza - might not seem like a healthy pick, but the slices are made with whole wheat crust, reduced-fat cheese and turkey pepperoni, said chef Rachel Petraglia, the district's culinary coordinator.

The district also bakes or steams food instead of frying and chooses items that are lower in sodium and higher in fiber, Crawford said. The school system is also moving toward eliminating trans fats from its menu.

Karen Strong, PCRM dietitian, said the schools are doing a great job overall with their menus and offer exceptional vegetarian entrees.

People develop their eating habits early on, and eating healthy in school helps children develop lifelong healthy eating habits, Strong said.

"Childhood obesity is a serious health threat, so it's wonderful to see Gwinnett County Public Schools serving low-fat vegetarian foods that can help students stay trim," Strong said. "The plant-based foods served daily offer a healthy alternative to the artery-clogging hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and cheese pizzas that dominate most school menus."

PCRM established the Golden Carrot Awards in 2004 to recognize food service professionals doing an exceptional job of improving the healthfulness of school lunches, according to a news release. The Committee looks for programs that encourage children to eat fresh fruits and vegetables and that offer plenty of vegetarian, low-fat, whole grain and nondairy options.