Nancy Brown having lunch with students at Charles Rice Learning Center.

Nancy Brown had lunch Tuesday with students at Charles Rice Learning Center in Dallas.

The cafeteria line at Charles Rice Learning Center in south Dallas was awash in leafy greens and fresh fruits Tuesday. Lunch featured vegan taco salad, sliced bell peppers, fruit salad — and a visit from American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown.

Brown joined students for a healthy lunch that included extra servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and reduced sodium. Meals at Charles Rice also include foods grown in the school garden, where Brown was on hand as fifth-graders showed off their green thumbs by planting tomatoes and peppers.

At lunchtime, Brown talked to students about their favorite fruits and vegetables, and what being healthy meant to them.

“I was really proud to hear that they talked about doing better in school and being role models for other kids, and not growing up with disease,” Brown said. “That’s really what our culture of health movement in schools is all about — getting kids to realize that being healthy is fun, and it impacts the rest of their lives. These kids get that.”

Nancy at Charles Rice

Students plant vegetables in the garden at Charles Rice Learning Center.

Thetis Elder has two grandchildren at the school and helps in the school garden a few times a week. She helped start the gardening program several years ago.

“It’s been fabulous,” said Elder. “The kids can tell you what a tomato plant is.”

Principal Alpher Garrett-Jones said the garden brings the community together, even in the summer. But her greatest joy is watching parents and children eat nutritious meals together as part of the school’s dinner program.

Charles Rice serves nearly 600 students from prekindergarten through fifth grade. Nine out of 10 students receive free or reduced-price school meals based on family income.

The school also has a history of strong academic performance and innovative programs, and participates in health initiatives such as Breakfast in the Classroom, Garrett-Jones said.

Charles Rice is part of the nation’s 14th largest school district. Nearly nine out of 10 of the Dallas Independent School District’s 160,000 students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Texas is a leader in the nation with 100 percent of its schools participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which means healthier foods are offered to thousands of other Texas students.

Dora Rivas, Dallas ISD’s executive director of Food and Child Nutrition Services, has championed efforts to implement the standards into the district’s 224 schools.

“As a registered dietitian, I’ve always believed in using the cafeteria as a learning laboratory,” Rivas said. “So offering fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain, low fat or skim milk has always been part of menu planning.”

Rivas said Dallas ISD started adjusting its menu two years before the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 updated the nutrition standards for NSLP, the national School Breakfast Program and other foods served in schools. Designed to help reduce childhood obesity, the law helped to reduce fat and sodium and increase fresh fruits and vegetables in school meals and snacks.

Other school districts implementing nutrition standards should involve students and parents in the menu planning and recipe testing, Rivas said.

“I think the biggest challenge is getting the children to transition to new, healthier food options,” she said. “Patience is part of the process, and offering variety on the line, because obviously not everyone is going to like the same food items.”

The nutrition standards have been met with disapproval by some lawmakers who criticize the costs and question the science behind the guidelines. The American Heart Association advocates for protecting the progress made by the updated nutrition standards and strongly opposes efforts in Congress to roll back the standards, including removing sodium limits from school meals.

Currently, 93 percent of U.S. schools who participate in the NSLP are meeting the updated standards, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Photos courtesy of Tiffany Travis and Vanessa Fuentes.