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Texas schools launch 'virtual cafeteria'

Cathy the cafeteria worker stands smiling behind a lunch counter filled with everything from salads to desserts. She may just be an image on the Internet, but she’s not shy about telling you what she thinks about your food choices.

A salad gets instant accolades: “Congratulations! That’s a food with both vitamin A and vitamin C.”

Click your mouse on a cookie though and a red circle lights up, warning it’s a “Whoa” food — one that should be eaten less often than a “Go” or “Slow” food.

A suburban Dallas school district launched the “Virtual Cafeteria” site to show what’s being served each day at each school. It can tally nutritional information for items on a lunch tray, including calories, fat grams, carbs, protein, vitamin A and vitamin C.

For instance, a meal of a chef salad, a slice of pizza, a cookie and milk will cost $4.75 and runs about 746 calories.

“We are really making a valiant effort to put nutritional information in the hands of our customers, be it parents, a grandmother, a teacher or the student themselves,” said Rachelle Fowler, student nutrition director for the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district.

About 30 percent of U.S. schoolchildren are believed to be overweight and about 35 percent of Texas children are overweight, something that inspired state Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs to implement stricter nutrition guidelines last year for schools in the state.

Making sound nutrition choices

Schools are adopting those guidelines and adding their own initiatives, such as the efforts at Carrollton-Farmers Branch and fruit and vegetable taste-testings for kindergartners at the Magnolia district in southeast Texas.

“We’ve had fantastic response from school districts across the state,” said Beverly Boyd, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Agriculture. “We’ve seen so many innovative and creative ideas and physical activities.”

Fowler said Carrollton-Farmers Branch officials expect the Web site to be used not only by students, but by teachers as a classroom tool.

“Our parents at home can sit down with their children and help them make good, sound nutrition choices,” she said.

Since school just started, many students haven’t learned about the Web site yet, school officials said. Fowler’s department will promote it on in-school television spots and has given staff demonstrations.

Parent Marie Goldis learned about the Web site during a “Meet the Teacher Night” at her daughter’s elementary school and the next day explored the site.

“I think it’s going to help the kids if they actually get in there and use it,” said Goldis, who plans to help her children, a kindergartner and a 7th-grader, plan meals.

She said that she hopes learning the details like how much sugar or carbohydrates are in a product might help her children make better choices.

“(My son) thought it was neat to be able to see the contents and also know ahead of time what’s going to be on the menu,” Goldis said.