At first glance, the kitchen of the recently built Bryan Station High School may seem ordinary. But closer inspection reveals that a common appliance is missing: a deep fryer.
Deep fryers aren't put in new Fayette County schools, and older schools are phasing them out. At least a dozen county schools don't fry food, as part of the district's initiative to serve healthier food.
The Washington Post recently cited Kentucky's school lunch program as one of the healthiest in the nation. In fact, Kentucky schools make up more than 20 percent of those recognized in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's HealthierUS School Challenge, a program that identifies excellence in nutrition and physical activity in the nation's elementary schools.
"It really speaks highly of Kentucky and what we're doing in our districts," said Michelle Coker, food service director for Fayette County schools.
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During the past few years, the state has pushed serving whole grains, ample servings of fruits and vegetables, 100 percent juice and one-percent and fat-free milk, Coker said. And school nutritionists have been advised to bake everything they can.
Kentucky got on track to healthier school lunches several years ago when a couple of things happened. In 2005 the state legislature passed strict regulations regarding what elementary and high schools could and could not serve. And in 2006 Fayette County schools released a report that included information about better nutrition.
The biggest target of the legislative move was vending machines.
Now, vending machines in Kentucky schools offer only low-fat, low-calorie snacks, such as baked chips and 100-calorie cookie packs. The beverages are diet sodas, water and juice. Regular soft drinks and fried chips have disappeared from vending choices.
If a school offers a "good nutrition-education program, and then right around the corner there's a Coke machine," that's sending the wrong message to students, said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education.
"Kids aren't dumb," Gross said. "They know that certain things are better for you, and they want to feel good and maintain a good weight and be healthy."
Gross frequently gets calls from schools throughout the country asking about the vending machine restrictions, she said.
"That tells me that people are looking at it as a model," she said.
A national push
Kentucky's moves put the state out front on an issue that Congress is focusing on.
The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act, introduced in both the U.S. House and the Senate earlier this year, seeks to update national school nutrition standards.
The bill addresses health issues, including the national sodium intake among children, which is 214 percent greater than recommended levels, and the fact that 25 percent of children between age 5 and 10 show warning signs of heart disease.
Childhood obesity moved to the forefront as a major health issue earlier this decade, and Kentucky didn't want to get left behind in addressing the problem, said Julia Bauscher, nutrition chairwoman for the national School Nutrition Association.
The state usually scores poorly on any list dealing with healthy eating, and that needs to change, said Bauscher.
In fact, Kentucky currently ranks as the seventh-fattest state. However, that's better than in 2006, when it was fifth.
"We need to turn that around, or we're all going to be paying higher health care costs for our kids in the long run," she said.
Delivering health education in elementary school remains essential to building healthy eating habits, said Bauscher, who is also the manager of the central kitchen for the Jefferson County Public Schools.
By middle and high school, kids have generally set their eating habits, she said.
The 2006 report issued by Fayette County schools — "2020 Vision: Changing the Face of Education in Fayette County" — included recommendations for child nutrition reform.
Schools have a responsibility to practice what they preach, the report said. After all, serving unhealthy foods contradicts the message schools send about nutritious eating.
The report recommended that each student get no less than 20 minutes to sit and eat lunch every day — rather than having that amount of time to hurry from class, eat and hurry back.
Spreading the word
While the schools are focusing on nutrition, the emphasis is also spreading to local child care programs.
Kelly Easton, director of the child development program at the YMCA of Central Kentucky, said the organization tries to push healthy eating.
This year, the YMCA summer camp banned the counselors and the children from bringing soft drinks or unhealthy snacks in their lunches, Easton said.
The YMCA promotes a health initiative called "5-2-1-0," which translates into five servings of fruits and vegetables, two hours maximum of watching television, at least one hour of physical activity and zero sugary soft drinks per day.
But Easton said they try to make the snacks tasty as well as healthy.
"No matter how healthy a snack is, if the kids don't want to eat it, it's not doing any good."