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Celebrating 15 Years of a Healthy School Lunch Option

How about cheesy pepperoni, Hawaiian pineapple and ham, or vegetarian pizza, all piping hot and ready to enjoy? These pizzas are made with reduced-fat mozzarella cheese and are offered at the Crossroads Café—the food-service installation at Camas High School in Camas, Washington.

One technology for making tasty-but-healthy cheese was invented by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists at the Dairy and Functional Foods Research Unit in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania. It became available to schools in 1995 and is used to provide a low-fat alternative to high-fat cheese when making pizzas. The ARS team included chemists Michael Tunick, Edyth Malin, and James Shieh, physical science technician Brien Sullivan, and Peter Cooke (no longer with ARS). Other team members, Virginia Holsinger and Phil Smith, are deceased.

In 2009, more than 31 million children participated in the USDA National School Lunch Program in more than 101,000 schools and residential childcare institutions. With National School Lunch Week being observed each October, now is a good time to celebrate all healthy cheese options—produced using a variety of manufacturing methods—that are available in school lunches.

Starting in 1992, the team began exploring new ways to cut mozzarella’s fat content without sacrificing its flavor or stretchy texture, especially as a pizza topping. They worked on modifying the network of the milk protein casein. The result was a mozzarella with improved storage life and only 10 percent fat—about half the fat content of regular mozzarella.

Just as important, pizza-eating students give the cheese a thumbs-up, according to school food-service director Sarah Winans with the Crossroads Café.

Martha Henry, director of food service for all schools in Tennessee’s Maryville City School District, agrees. “We find that pizza is one of school kids’ favorite lunches,” she says. “Reduced-fat mozzarella cheese allows the students to enjoy pizza while reducing their dietary fat intake.”

The USDA Farm Service Agency’s Kansas City Commodity Office in Missouri began buying lower fat mozzarella cheeses in the early 1990s. Since 2000, that office has been buying lower fat mozzarellas exclusively. More than 500 million pounds of lower fat mozzarella cheeses—worth more than $800 million—have been purchased for school-related programs, according to program analysts David Leggett and Michael Buckley with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service in Alexandria, Virginia.

This research supports the USDA priority of improving children’s nutrition and health.—By Rosalie Marion Bliss, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.

Michael H. Tunick is with the USDA-ARS Dairy and Functional Foods Research Unit, Eastern Regional Research Center, 600 E. Mermaid Lane, Wyndmoor, PA 19038-8598; (215) 233-6454.

"Celebrating 15 Years of a Healthy School Lunch Option" was published in the October 2010 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

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