Grilled Mahi Mahi with tropical fruit salsa served with a choice of steamed brown rice and a side of fresh vegetables normally costs $15 for lunch.
At John Gray High School in George Town, students are served this dish and other healthy (and delicious) options daily for only $5.
That’s the new food policy. With childhood overweight and obesity more than doubling in the past 20 years and one in every five being affected by obesity locally, the Cayman Islands Health Services Authority was forced to take action.
One of the first steps was to reduce empty calories manufactured foods high in fat, sugar and salt and to increase the children’s fruit and vegetable consumption.
They also focused on removing drinks from school which have no nutritional value and can cause tooth decay, and replacing them with water or other nutritious drinks like milk and fruit and vegetable juices.
Sean Collins,managing director of Mise en Place is in charge of catering for John Gray High school.
He has designed an evolving menu that abides by the strict guidelines that the new standards for food provision for Cayman Islands public schools sets out.
“They’re pretty strict in everything the fat content, sugar, seasoning of the food even how you prepare things. You’re not allowed to deep-fry anymore,” he said. “You’re allowed red meat twice a week, at a maximum, and there are no processed meats no hotdogs, no bologna, no sausages.”
It was a big shock to the kids when they returned to school in September and didn’t find the normal menu,fatty foods like fried chicken and french fries.
The students can still get pizza, but the pizza on the Mise en Place school menu is made with whole wheat dough, freshly made sauce, low-fat mozzarella cheese and a topping of grilled chicken or vegetables.
The new, healthier pizza has been approved by Bethany Smith, the community dietitian from the Health Services Authority who prepared the food policy standards which are based on the UK model.
“It’s a bit of a cultural change,” she said. “It’s not easy to go from one type of food to fruits and vegetables.”
Change is never easy, and this was echoed in a recent Home School Association meeting when the discussions were dominated by the new food policy and not all parents approved, one irate parent even referred to the food on the new menu as “slop.”
Collins says that this is an area which they need to work on, that educating parents is the most important part of the process.
“This is to benefit their children and the health of the youth in Cayman in general,” he said. “If they (parents) told their kids to eat it, they’d eat it.”
Collins has tried to encourage the parents by attending PTA meetings and letting parents know that the government has set the rules for the food policy and it has approved all the menus. He said that he found at the meetings that some of the parents have given him positive feedback and voiced their appreciation for his new menu, but he wishes the parents were more vocal.
Smith says that the The Ministry of Education should be commended for implementing a food policy and for standing by it. She points out that some children will end up taking all their meals at school which makes a food policy even more important.“Some kids may eat breakfast, lunch and snacks at school, so the school is responsible for the nutrition in many cases.”
Education Minister Rolston Anglin says he will immediately address issues with the new meals and other changes.
“We need more parents involved in our schools,” he said. “If we don’t get more parents here, we will not achieve the outcomes we want.”
“Our goal is to benefit the students and the school, and we want it to be an inclusive approach,” added Smith. “Within the standards, we want to make is as appealing as possible.” She added “We don’t want to alienate anyone.”
For Sean Collins the new food policy means he has to run the business differently than he did last year when he was able to sell the fattier foods and candy, which sold out often. “In backing this, I’m losing a large amount of sales compared to what we were doing last year,” he said. “The kids aren’t buying as much.”
His company isn’t doing as well with the current menu, but he’s fully in support of it because he understands what he is doing is helping children eat better, which leads to many benefits physically, academically and socially.
These provisions led to more expensive ingredients and more spending, but sold at the same prices.
“We took a loss on the profit margin and also the volume,” says Collins. “It’s definitely a different business and we have to adjust.”
Mise en Place has always had a healthy option on their menu, but not like the current menu. “If I sold chicken tenders and french fries everyday, we’d be making a killing,” he said. “But as it is, we’re lucky if half of what we sold last year, we’re selling this year.”
Mise en Place goes through dozens of fruit and vegetable boxes every month, which is a large part of the rising costs. But when Collins hears from parents that their kids are behaving better, it makes up for the lower profits.
“That’s the satisfaction,” he said.