With childhood obesity on the rise nationwide, the White House recently challenged schools, educators, chefs, food manufacturers and organizations like the USA Rice Federation to improve child nutrition by offering healthier school meals and helping school children develop healthy eating habits.

The nation’s schools will play a significant role in this effort, as nearly 32 million children nationwide eat at least one meal per day in their school cafeteria.

In recent months, first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign called for more nutritious meals and physical activity, which will help reverse the childhood obesity epidemic within a generation. The campaign emphasizes the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge,” which requires serving more produce, whole grains (including brown rice), fruits and vegetables, and lower amounts of sugar, sodium, and saturated and trans-fats in school menus.

To garner additional culinary support, White House chef Sam Kass launched “Chefs Move to Schools,” a program that encourages top chefs from around the country work to with a local school foodservice staff members to create healthier meals.

USA Rice attended a launch event at the White House in June, as recognition of its long-time commitment to school foodservice and child nutrition. At the event, the first lady acknowledged the importance of U.S. agriculture. “You all know the enormous amount of care and the sense of pride that our farmers put into growing the food that nourishes the world,” Mrs. Obama said.

USA Rice has engaged in numerous activities that provide ideas and solutions for school foodservice operations. The School Nutrition Association (SNA), a national trade group that advocates for continuous improvement of child nutrition in schools, recently recognized USA Rice for more than 30 years of commitment and support of school nutrition.

USA Rice distributed recipes and promoted healthy meals with rice to 2,500 school foodservice directors, menu planners and nutrition professionals at SNA’s Annual Conference this summer.

“With the nation’s attention focused on child nutrition, the activities conducted by USA Rice fit perfectly to support healthier eating by serving more dishes with nutrient-rich U.S.-grown rice on school menus,” Anne Banville, USA Rice vice president of domestic promotion, said.

“Our farmers and millers play a vital role in producing high quality rice that is a foundation of healthy meals.”

USA Rice is also working with the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) on a rice recipe research project. This spring, elementary and high school students learned about the health benefits of brown rice and how easy it is to add more whole grains to their meals.

USA Rice also conducted taste tests with the students. Top-rated rice dishes included a barbeque chicken rice bowl and Cajun rice. Both meals are expected to be featured on school lunch menus this fall. More than half of the students surveyed eat rice two or three times weekly and about 90 percent were interested in adding more rice dishes to their school’s menu.

The popularity of rice bowls continues to grow in schools and is a simple concept that combines whole-grain brown rice or enriched white rice with fresh vegetables, lean proteins and flavorful sauces to create an all-in-one nutritious and satisfying lunch for students. USA Rice conducts an annual “Healthy Rice Bowls Contest” that invites school foodservice directors and menu planners to create flavorful, healthy rice bowls for a chance to promote their schools and win prizes.

“Students told us they wanted something appealing, filling, fast, and easy to hold and most importantly, great tasting food,” said 2009 contest winner Sylvia Kravitz, product development technician for San Diego Unified School District. “Rice bowls fit the bill and are a crowd-pleaser.”

The school district serves rice bowls three to four times each week in its “Wok ’n Bowl” stations.

Educating kids about U.S. rice

USA Rice also provides educational resources about the U.S. rice industry. “U.S. Rice in the Classroom,” a brochure for elementary students, uses colorful maps, interesting farm facts, illustrations, and games to teach schoolchildren about U.S. rice production.

A dedicated section for K-12 is featured on USA Rice’s Web site for foodservice professionals, MenuRice.com. This section provides news, recipes, fact sheets and brochures and other learning tools for professionals and educators.

USA Rice will continue to support K-12 school meal providers by offering creative menu ideas, recipes, education materials and training tools for school foodservice.

For more information about USA Rice’s programs for schools, visit http://www.menurice.com/k-12.

Judy Rusignuolo is Director of National Consumer Education and Foodservice Marketing at USA Rice Federation.