School lunches have traditionally brought to mind images of mystery meat, fruit cups, Sloppy Joes and Tater Tots.

But some in Scarborough are trying to change that and are looking to make the schools standard bearers in nutrition and health.

Since April, the school district has been developing its wellness policy – a policy required by the federal government that details how a district will promote nutritional values to its students. As a part of that, the school’s Wellness Policy Committee has reviewed the district’s entire health curriculum, including what is taught in gym, health and nutrition classes along with the school lunch program.

Last week, the committee released the results of a survey asking Scarborough residents about their feelings on health in school, including instruction and school lunch. They received more than 850 responses.

Students at Scarborough High School had a few ideas of their own on how the school could become a healthier place and what changes the school could make to its school lunch menu.

A lot of junk

Most respondents said they were mainly satisfied with the current lunch program, but wanted to reduce the number of high-sugar, high-fat food choices offered during school. Most respondents did not have strong feelings on the a la carte food sales or the serving portions.

The results also indicated people were in favor of discouraging sweets as a reward in the classroom and requiring healthy snack options at all classroom celebrations.

The survey also showed respondents felt there is not enough time set aside for lunch and would like to see more time dedicated to physical activity along with building activity breaks into the school day. Respondents also were in favor of increasing the required time for gym.

High school students feel a bit differently about the program. The student council recently surveyed students and asked for their feelings on the lunch program, which did not rate well.

Some of the comments received from the survey include, “Hot lunch is too healthy,” “We’ve already done a lot of reducing the number of high-sugar, high-fat foods,” and “The lunch program has evolved a lot already.”

Sophomore Jeff Poulin, a member of the student council, said he thinks the food service has done a good job at the high school. He thinks the salad bar is a good choice, but feels the cost is a drawback.

“I think it’s great; there’s something for everyone,” he said. “It’s really in the hands of the student to make the right choices.”

However, senior Matt Libby, chairman of the student council, disagreed and felt the menu offerings at the school were less than nutritious.

Instead, Libby has been packing his lunch everyday for the past two years, including a sandwich, fruit, and water along with his own peppermill.

“There’re very few completely healthy choices you can make,” he said, adding that there is a lot of fried food. “It seems like there are very few opportunities to make good choices.”

Many students agree with Libby and feel the lunch program could offer a wider variety of food and healthier options. They are especially disappointed with the processed chicken that is offered in the cafeteria and said they would like to see more unprocessed food.

“The sandwich bar is healthy, but the rest of it is junk,” said junior Kyle Neelon.

There are opportunities for students to find healthy food like salads or sandwiches if they choose, but when it comes to hot foods “there’s nothing really healthy,” said sophomore Matt Boulerice.

Driven by a budget

Food Services Director Judy Campbell said the district has an excellent school lunch program and most parents are mainly concerned about what is offered on the a-la-carte menu. The program pays for itself and must do so every year, and that does have an effect on what is being served.

“The budget is what drives the program,” Campbell said. “We must pay for our costs.”

She said the school has introduced new, healthy foods into the program and are bringing up the quality of the district’s lunch options wherever possible.

Students also felt the district could do more for physical education and nutritional education. Currently the high school requires students to take two semesters of gym, and some felt that it was not enough.

“I’d rather have gym everyday,” said junior Rob Fritz.

The problem for Fritz’s brother, sophomore Eric Fritz, is that his academic course load doesn’t allow him the time to take gym.

Boulerice said gym classes could be expanded to include some sort of health instruction. That way a student could learn something while participating in the class.

Students also said the one semester of health class the get does not focus nearly enough on physical health and nutrition.

“I think the teachers are slightly more interested in sex and drugs than health,” said Rob Fritz.

Boulerice said he has not taken health, but he doesn’t think a single semester is all that helpful. “However you grow up is pretty much how you eat (in school),” he said.

Proposal in the works

The Wellness Policy Committee, comprised of school staff, administrators and residents, has been meeting since last spring to formulate a plan and expects it will forward a proposal to the school board in April.

“Scarborough really is doing more and doing it more completely than any other district we’re hearing about in this vicinity,” said Wentworth Assistant Principal Ellen Beale, co-chairman of the committee.

The federal government is requiring the wellness policies because it is taking a long-term approach to holding down future health care costs. The idea is to teach children good health habits that they will carry through their whole lives.

“We can’t just do it from doctor visits. We need to look at this more from a societal standpoint,” Beale said.

While no definite recommendations have been decided, Campbell, co-chair of the committee, said she would like to see the district add more time for lunch in the primary schools. Beale would like to see the district’s curriculum match the sprit of the wellness policy.

Beale said the committee already is ahead of many school districts in its efforts because of the large amount of public comment it has received from residents.

“Most striking for me is the level of consciousness that parents really have for nutrition,” Beale said.

Scarborough Wellness, a local organization dedicated to improving health by promoting healthy lifestyles, has worked actively with the committee and its members have applauded the work done thus far.

“We certainly do have a strong interest in children’s health, and we’re really glad to see this work going on,” said Lisa Letourneau, chairman of the Scarborough Wellness Steering Committee.

The regulations regarding the formulation of the wellness policy requires the participation of community members, and Scarborough Wellness was a perfect fit for the job.

“I’d love to see a reaffirmation by the school district that the schools have a role in promoting health and doing that in a variety of ways,” Letourneau said.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.