The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

Local News

October 28, 2011

Students make pitch for healthier food choices

DANVILLE — The chicken tenders and quesadillas served at Danville High School’s cafeteria are legendary.

Unfortunately, both menu items are not very healthy, according to a group of sophomores and juniors in Doug Mathias’ biology class.

The students made their discoveries while working on a unit on organic chemistry.

“They’ve been looking at the foods downstairs in the cafeteria and coming up with healthier options,” Mathias said.

Six groups of Mathias’ students presented their findings Friday to District 118’s Food Service Director Greg Lazzell; Cheryl McIntire, principal of Northeast Elementary Magnet School, which is known nationally for its healthy school menu; and other high school teachers.

Students were asked to list their five favorite breakfast foods and five favorite lunch items served in the high school cafeteria.

When the students learned of the number of calories as well as the sugar and sodium content of their favorite foods, they were surprised.

“We found out they had a lot of calories and salt,” said Jimmy Strawser, a sophomore.

“We knew they tasted good, but we didn’t realize that you really have to watch what you eat,” he said.

Mathias said, “The quesadillas, for example, have 910 mg of sodium.

“It kind of opened my eyes, too,” he said.

“I didn’t realize pancakes had so much salt,” Mathias said. “I love pancakes in the morning, but I have high blood pressure.

“The students also found out that granola bars don’t have a lot of nutritional value,” he added.

Finding healthier options in the cafeteria was challenging, too.

“They’re having a lot of trouble with it because they didn’t realize there was a lot of sugar in low fat foods and a lot of salt in processed foods,” Mathias said. “It’s difficult to find foods that are healthier.”

The students then had to develop healthy meal plans for fictitious case subjects, such as a 275-pound male teenager and a 90-pound female teenager.

“I was trying to have them keep within 2,000 to 2,500 calories a day,” he said.

One group of students worked to develop a meal plan for a 210-pound 15-year-old girl who had an elevated cholesterol level.

“We’re trying to help her lose weight by eating healthy and bring down her cholesterol level,” said Destiny Smith, a junior.

“She needed to get her cholesterol down, so we suggested smaller portions,” Jimmy said of developing a meal plan for his group’s case subject.

“You can eat some chicken tenders, but you can’t overdo it,” Martez Davis, a junior, added.

As for the group’s recommendation to the food service director, as much as the students look forward to chicken tenders being served every week, they were willing to sacrifice for the sake of their health.

“Maybe have chicken tenders once a month instead of every Friday,” Jimmy offered.

Another group of students suggested that their case subject switch out pizza for baked trout at lunch and eschew chicken tenders for a tuna sandwich.

“Chicken tenders are his favorite, but they’re really high in calories and fat, so we switched it out for a tuna sandwich,” said Sydnee Sexton.

Lazzell praised Sydnee’s group’s presentation, saying he liked that they provided their case subject with options for healthier food choices.

“You need options,” he said. “Everything is OK in moderation. You can’t eat chicken tenders every day.”

Another group of students made subtle changes to their case subject’s diet that added up to healthier choices.

Manuel Villanueva said he and his classmates, Beniesha Holmes and Zach Zimmerman, switched the menu from glazed doughnuts to plain cake doughnuts, real eggs to powdered eggs, regular Pop-Tarts to wheat Pop-Tarts, fried chicken to baked chicken and regular pizza to flatbread pizza.

“You had some very good suggestions,” Lazzell praised Manuel’s group.

At the end of the presentations, Lazzell asked the students if their research has had any impact on the way they eat, especially in the school cafeteria.

“If you had that information in the cafeteria, would it change your choice?” Lazzell asked.

Sydnee said it would.

“I had no idea that there were so many calories in the food we eat here,” she said.

Lazzell then asked the students, “If you eat chicken tenders for lunch, do you look at balancing out your day? You’ve got to look at your caloric intake over the day.”

In the coming months, several changes are in store for the high school cafeteria, Lazzell said.

“It’s going to be incremental. We’re going to bring in healthier items and take away the unhealthy ones,” he said.

One change that already has been made is the addition of 100-calorie dessert cups and a reduction in the number of different snack cakes that are offered.

“Every time we bring a healthy item in, an unhealthy item will be taken out,” he said.

Lazzell also plans to post signs giving the nutritional values of the food items served in the cafeteria.

One thing that won’t change, however, are the chicken tenders.

“We still want to offer them choices, because we’re a closed campus. We just don’t want to be the conduit for unhealthy choices,” he said.

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