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Unhealthy lunches? Some schools bet on salad bars.

As parents, policy makers and educators in Chicago debate such issues as improving teacher quality and lengthening public school days, another battle has been brewing over what’s on students’ cafeteria plates.

Those battles have included debates over implementing a new free breakfast in the classroom program and last year’s decision to renew the district’s $61 million food service contract with Chartwells/Thompson.

Nationally, the Obama administration is placing greater emphasis on improving the nutrition of school lunches.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages school nutrition guidelines, wants more American schools to offer orange vegetables in their school lunches 3 or more days during the week. They also want to see more dark leafy greens on students’ plates, but are fending off advances from lobbyists who want to keep items like pizza and fries in school cafeterias.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard and USDA officials were on hand Tuesday to honor Walsh Elementary School in Pilsen and 18 other Chicago schools for improving healthy food options and nutrition education in the classroom, and for providing more opportunities for its students to be physically active. The awards were given as part of the Go for the Gold program, a local version of the national HealthierUS Schools Challenge.

In April of 2010, CPS adopted voluntary guidelines for school nutrition that were stricter than those mandated at the national level. These changes included serving a different vegetable every day, limiting starchy vegetables like potatoes, increasing whole grains, reducing sodium and eliminating overly sweet breakfast items.

(WBEZ/Robin Amer)

(WBEZ/Robin Amer)

Nutrition specialist Melody Hendricks, 46, prepares the salad bar at Walsh Elementary School in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.

Walsh and a handful of other Chicago schools have gone even a step further. In addition to collards and sweet potatoes, Tuesday's menu included fresh fruit and cartons of skim and low-fat milk.  There's also a salad bar stocked with lettuce, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, available to the older students. The salad bar was installed in January. According to Mark Bishop from the Healthy Schools Campaign, there are 100 CPS schools with salad bars, 70 of which were installed during the 2010-2011 school year.

Still, there are complaints and challenges that CPS individual schools like Walsh still have to contend with. The district had originally said it wanted 100 of its 675 schools to earn the Go for the Gold award.  Just 19 have met the criteria thus far. 

Furthermore, like many Chicago schools, the hot food at Walsh is cooked off site and then warmed in the school's heating kitchen. And just because vegetables are served, it doesn’t necessarily mean kids will eat them. In fact, the students we spoke with said the favorite thing for lunch that day was the entrée: fried chicken. 

You can see what some of Chicago’s youngest students are eating, and what they think of their lunches, in the video above.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the number of Chicago Public Schools with salad bars installed in their cafeterias.

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