It’s lunchtime at Menlo Park Elementary, and kids stream into the cafeteria in 25-minute shifts.
The process is quick and efficient as students choose between an express meal, the more traditional tray line, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Tina Gonzales, kitchen manager at Menlo Park, says the school serves lunch to 240 to 260 students a day. She’s been part of TUSD food services for 16 years, and she says she’s seen some changes in the way Tucson’s largest school district operates.
“The changes that I’ve seen are the healthier choices,” she says. “We use to serve cake, a lot of starchy food. Of course we have the protein, but we now have more fruit, and vegetables … it’s a lot healthier for the students.”
Student health is a concern, particularly in light of statistics provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which show obesity now affects up to 20 percent of children and 18 percent of adolescents in the United States --more than triple the rate from just one generation ago.
Scott Going, professor of nutritional science at the University of Arizona, says the rate of childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions.
Going says at the most basic level, the problem is the result of eating too many calories and not getting enough physical exercise.
“If we’re going to do something about the childhood obesity problem, we’re going to have to do something about both sides of the energy balance equation,” Going says. “Burn more calories and maybe not eat less calories, but eat healthier calories.”
Lindsay Aguilar, a dietitian and the production technical coordinator for TUSD food services, says TUSD is the second largest school district in the state and serves 40,000 meals per day.
“A lot of our kids eat breakfast and lunch with us, so they get two out of their three meals with us,” she says.
Aguilar recognizes the district plays an important role in the health of the students, and she says the menu changes provide healthier alternatives.
“We’ve implemented whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and salads have been on the menu for five years now,” says Aguilar.
Aguilar says there is no single solution to the epidemic of obesity among young people, but she points to the healthier options that are available today in TUSD as a step in the right direction.