Schools focus on better taste, higher nutrition in cafeterias

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - When you think of cafeteria food, what comes to mind? These days, school lunches have taken on a healthier twist. Hundreds of child nutrition managers are meeting in Biloxi this weekend to learn how to cut the calories while boosting the flavor in foods. They're learning how to play a vital role in helping children lead more healthier lifestyles.

These days, cafeteria crews must make sure every child's tray has enough fruits and vegetables. They must also deal with more challenges than ever before.

"Every month, we're working with menus and redoing menus and trying to make it as palatable for the kids as possible. Plus, with all the food allergies, with gluten problems that we're seeing more and more," said Debbie Chatagnier, Gulfport Schools Child Nutrition Director.

Controlling food allergies and improving the nutritional value and taste of cafeteria food are all part of the "Mississippi School Nutrition Association Conference" in Biloxi. About 650 child nutrition managers, employees, and vendors from across the state are learning how to tweak their recipes to meet new USDA guidelines.

"We're teaching our employees how to be professional chefs. We're showing them they can produce a healthy product by draining the fat out of the ground meat, or by doing small things to make the meal with less saturated fat, or no saturated fat and less salt," said MSNA President Julie Hamilton.

"Our students want the best and this is a way we can train our employees to be able to provide that. We have a lot of mandates from USDA and here, they can learn options of how to prepare food healthier and student friendly," she added.

The goal is to help reduce the childhood obesity rate in Mississippi.

"It's starting to come down a little bit, which we're really excited about," said Chatagnier. "I think a lot of that has to do with what child nutrition is doing and also with the activity that we're requiring our students to do these days."

The managers will also learn creative ways to get more children to eat breakfast, how to use technology to run a more efficient cafeteria, and how to use the latest kitchen equipment.  On the fun side, they can take advantage of food competitions, college scholarship opportunities, and a fashion show.

"We are giving them the tools that they need to be able to be professional. We're teaching them their perception makes a big difference. They need to dress professionally to get the respect. They need to show respect to the students and faculty to be able to earn that, to show them how to make the best food possible," said Hamilton.

The theme of the conference is "School Meals: A Wonderland of Fruits and Vegetables". The event ends on Sunday.

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