Steamboat schools turn up the juice

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— These aren't the sugar-infused, food-coloring-laden Slush Puppies of years past.

The new Slush Puppies brand-name fruit drinks, unveiled last year, are 100 percent fruit juice and come in flavors such as orange mango, cool blue raspberry and kiwi strawberry.

Shipped from Denver, the juices went on sale at Steamboat Springs Middle School last week as part of an initiative by district food service officials to provide healthier options for students.

Nutritional services director Darcy Trask said Monday that the new Slush Puppie machine is the latest change made this year to beverages offered in Steamboat Springs public schools.

Sugary drinks such as Sunny Delight, Arizona iced teas, SoBe juices and Starbucks coffees are gone from schools, Trask said, replaced by healthier choices such as Capri Sun and Snapple fruit drinks that contain 100 percent juice, Izze sparkling juices and an increased variety of milk products.

The district also has switched from selling 16-ounce Gatorade bottles to 12-ounce bottles, a decision Trask said received opposition from some students but teaches a good lesson.

"One of the big issues we're trying to promote is that our kids understand what a serving is," Trask said.

The school district does not have a contract with soda companies such as Coca-Cola or Pepsi, making funding an annual food service budget of about $615,000 a challenge.

"Schools are really grappling with how to say no to soda, which can make about 75 cents a can (in profit), and how to say yes to healthy products, which might just break even," Trask said. "Every change we've made with drinks has resulted in less profit -- except for the (Slush Puppie) juice machine."

By providing healthier choices, the district is planning ahead for a wellness policy to comply with federal National School Lunch Program regulations. The Steamboat Springs School Board is mandated to approve a wellness policy to be implemented next school year.

Complying with federal regulations pays off, Trask said.

Last year, school district food services received about $25,000 in federal food commodities and about $50,000 in federal funding, compared with $4,000 last year from the state. "That's why we're willing to follow their rules," Trask said.

At Steamboat Springs High School, switching two coolers of soda-related beverages with a cooler supplied by the National Dairy Council and a cooler partially funded by the Boulder-based Izze company has changed what students drink at lunchtime.

"Our milk consumption is up probably by 2,000 to 3,000 percent," Trask said. "If we can get a kid to pick up a milk product or a 100 percent juice product instead of a soda and feel good about it, that's a great place for us to be."

At the middle school, the Slush Puppies are a hit. Production manager Mary Dike said the school is selling about 150 cups a day for $1 each.

Not all of those cups are going to students.

"Tim has one every day," office assistant Karen Myers said, referring to middle school Principal Tim Bishop. "I think he's hooked."

-- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203 or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com

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