The Fayette Tribune, Oak Hill, W.Va.

October 10, 2012

Parents question quality of school food

By C.V. Moore
Register-Herald Reporter

OAK HILL — Viral photos of a “pink” hamburger served at Oak Hill High School have some Fayette County parents concerned about the quality of school food, but part of the backlash may be due to an unrelated issue — a new meal pattern put in place this year aimed at fighting childhood obesity.

“My daughter didn’t even get a tray that day because of it,” Oak Hill High mother Tonya Newman told other news outlets after her daughter showed her the photos of the pink-tinged meat. Instead, Newman brought her daughter food at school.

Pictures of the burger were uploaded to CNN’s iReport and the “new school lunches” were blamed on Michelle Obama, who has been leading an initiative to end childhood obesity.

But David Seay, the food service director at Fayette County Schools, defends the meat and the cooks who made it.

“I think the meat was cooked completely thoroughly and was no danger to students, but I do agree it did not look as appetizing as we would like it to look,” he says.

Seay and the Health Department took the temperature of the meat to confirm that it was done.

“If they were raw it would be raw on the inside not on the outside,” he adds.

So what explains the pink discoloration?

The burgers are normally cooked plain in a skillet, but that day they were baked in a pan after the meat was mixed with some seasonings.

“I don’t know whether it was because they were overlapped in the pan or they didn’t turn them over when cooking them,” says Seay. “They were trying a new cooking method and it didn’t lead to a very desirable appearance on the product.”

Seay says several of the cooks at Oak Hill High School are new this year, and still working to get their routines down.

“Cooks work hard there to put out healthy, nutritious meals and just because of an error in their cooking method, they get a bad reputation,” he says.

“They are a new crew and they are doing a good job. They are just trying to figure it all out.”

Seay says the cooks are “the lowest paid and hardest working people in the school system.”

The meat comes from one of several approved companies and is distributed through Cisco. Seay did not know which specific company the meat was sourced from on the day in question, but said there is no “pink slime” in any of the meat served in Fayette County Schools.

"That’s not an issue,” he says. “But it is processed meat. It’s not like buying local, grass-fed cow.”

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A new “meal pattern” in schools this year emphasizes healthier foods and is more restrictive in calories than in the past.

“Our menu really hasn’t changed that much, but we’re trying to stress more fruit and vegetables and that takes some getting used to,” says Seay. “It’s a learning process for the kids.”

“Meal patterns” are menu-planning tools designed to ensure that kids are eating balanced meals from all food groups.

The new requirements are the result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

In Fayette County, some items like cheese and ham were taken off the salad bar after a menu analysis  last spring showed it was too high in saturated fat and sodium.

The new meal pattern restricts lunches to 850 calories.

“That’s still a lot of calories,” says Seay. “But it’s not what they are used to.”

Kids also can’t take pizza and milk on their tray and call it a lunch. Under the new rules, they must have at least three of the five components — grains, meat, milk, fruit and vegetable — and one must be a fruit or vegetable.

“Some kids have reacted to that and, frankly, some kids throw it away. We want to encourage them to eat those high fiber fruits and vegetables that stay longer with them,” says Seay.

Some of the county’s tomatoes, eggs, and green beans are sourced from local farmers in an effort to give kids “real food” and cook more from scratch. Cooks say it’s a lot of work.

“But they know we can’t continue to feed kids the way we have because West Virginia is one of the most obese states in the nation,” says Seay.

“We can’t continue to feed our kids chicken nuggets and expect them to have healthy lifestyles.”

Seay encourages parents who are concerned about the quality and quantity of school food to come to school and pay the $4 to eat a meal.

“We love to see the parents come out,” he says.

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com