Soy what?


Illinois to give soy a try in school lunches

Photos courtesy of Southern Illinois University Students at the Head Start Center in Anna, Ill., enjoy soy-enhanced spaghetti and meatballs.

Soy seems quite the ubiquitous bean these days, popping up as a key component in everything from lattes to candles-even roofing material. And if a pilot program in Illinois passes muster, school lunch menus nationwide may feature a daily helping of "soy foods" by 2005.

Illinois soybean farmers and food giant Archer Daniels Midland Co. have developed these "soy foods" to please even the most discriminating preschooler's palate. With plans to pilot the program during the 2004 school year, organizers now are searching for a handful of schools statewide willing to test soy-spiked lunch menus, according to Teresa Miller, spokesperson for the Illinois Soybean Association.

The program-the first of its kind-has several goals: to educate kids and the adults who nourish them about the nutritional benefits of soy; to contribute to a healthier, tastier school lunch, and to create foods with soy that taste as good or better than foods without soy.

First, let's get one thing straight: The grayish-brown, cardboard-flavored soy "burger" that figured prominently on lunch trays of yesteryear is the exact opposite of what these folks have in mind.

"We want to address the stigma of soy," says Miller. "A lot of parents [who went to school] in the late '70s and early '80s probably remember the soy burgers in school lunches. We want to make sure parents understand that it's not the same soy they had in school."

Instead, pilot menu items have included yummy lunch munchies such as soy-based ranch dip, soy-nut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, soy hot dogs and even breads or cookies with soy flour baked right into the dough.

Why soy? Aside from soy's widely touted health benefits-it's low in fat, high in protein and is believed to reduce "bad" cholesterol, along with the risk of heart disease and cancer-a recent study of children at Illinois Head Start centers indicated that preschoolers actually prefer foods with soy protein incorporated. One reason may be that the addition of soy in, say, chicken fingers, softens the meat, making the nuggets easier for young children to chew and swallow, says Miller. Also, soy is relatively inexpensive. And, finally, by replacing dairy or meat products with soy alternatives, menu coordinators statewide would better serve lactose-intolerant, vegetarian and kosher-practicing kids who currently face a quandary with the average meat- and dairy-rich lunch.

Since Illinois soybean farmers grow 20 percent of all soybeans produced nationwide, it makes sense that this program would start here. However, it seems a good fit for another reason. Recent studies have reported that Chicago area children, on average, tend toward obesity more than kids across the nation, prompting educators and parents to call for healthier school environments across the board.

Mandy Burrell


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