Bexley City Schools will use a nutrition rating system the district began participating in over a year ago as the springboard for its new health and wellness committee.

Bexley City Schools will use a nutrition rating system the district began participating in over a year ago as the springboard for its new health and wellness committee.

The committee, made up of community volunteers, is headed up by Bexley school board member Marlee Snowdon. She said the committee will likely hold its first meeting and a community summit on health and wellness in January.

"We would like to convene a community meeting to discuss nutrition and its relationship to childhood growth and development sometime in the near future," said Superintendent Mike Johnson in an e-mail to the board of education.

Johnson said the school district began participating in the Snackwise Nutrition Rating program with Ohio State University two years ago. The food service department has used the system to make a number of changes in the school lunch program.

The rating system measures the calories, sugar, fat and sodium of food options for students. Foods high in those nutrients receive a low or "red" rating. Food high in protein, iron, calcium, Vitamins A and C, and fiber receive a high or "green" rating." Foods in the middle receive an average or "yellow" rating.

"We envision using the Snackwise rating system as a focal point of our discussions with the community," Johnson said. "It is an excellent measurement tool that is easily understood and can be used to set measurable goals and support action plans."

Food services director Jim Anderson said the Snackwise program improved communication with students about healthy food choices.

"Anything that we can do to (offer) better choices is the responsibility of not only our school district but other school districts," he said.

The red, green and yellow stickers are placed on everything the cafeteria serves, Anderson said. The colors work well because the colors are the same in a traffic light, with red for stop, green for go and yellow for caution.

Director of operations Barry Zwick said the idea behind the Snackwise program started with the district's first health and wellness committee over five years ago. The group was made up of a diverse group of parents, physical education and health teachers, and a nutritionalist who developed the district's first policy.

"Jim Anderson found this program developed at Ohio State and we decided to start using it for our vending machines," Zwick said.

The program was so successful in vending machines that school district officials decided to start offering the dots for the ala cart menu items in the cafeteria, Zwick said.

"We didn't want to take everything away," he said. "It was best to educate people. It's OK to have M&Ms but you don't want to eat M&Ms every day."

Massive changes have been made in the cafeteria as a result of the program. For instance french fries are only served twice a week instead of every day. All french fries in the elementary schools are baked. The district also offers herbed redskin potatoes, mashed redskin potatoes and brown rice as healthy options.

Beverages offered to students have also changed, Anderson said. Now 99 percent of the drinks offered in the cafeteria are low-calorie or 100-percent juice.

The district buys produce from local farms in central Ohio, offers a daily salad bar with 12 to 15 different selections of fruits and vegetables. Garnishes for sandwiches are functional, not just pretty, and might include carrots, grapes or strawberries.

Even the baked goods are a little healthier in the cafeteria.

"We serve a healthy cookie made by a local individual here in town," he said. "The cookie cop has an egg-free cookie that is full of nutrients and good for diabetics."

Whole-grains are stressed too. All of the sandwich buns and breads are made from whole grains and pizza is served on a whole-grain crust.

The cafeterias are nut free too. Peanut butter sandwiches are made from a sunflower butter instead of traditional peanut butter.

"It has a similar taste to peanut butter, which satisfies kids who like peanut butter and jelly," Anderson said. "We don't have to worry about nut allergies."

None of the cafeteria vending machines have candy in them. Candy was replaced with items like pita garlic chips, sunflower seeds and graham crackers for a sweet treat, which seems to be going over pretty well with students, Anderson said.

"It is a matter of being dedicated to the program," he said. "It was challenging at the beginning for students who were not used to it."

About 18 months ago the food service department started off slowly by introducing whole-grains to students. That was quite a battle for many students, Anderson said.

"There is no other choice so they eat the whole grains," he said.

Students who don't like the healthier options can always leave the campus to purchase lunch, Anderson said, because Bexley has an open lunch policy. But district officials hope they stay for lunch and take advantage of the nutritious options.

tstubbs@thisweeknews.com