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Local districts try to make meals tasty, appealing and cost-efffective

Students line up to make their selections and pay as lunch is served at Lewis & Clark Middle School. Inset at top, labels along the serving line encourage students to add fruit and vegetables to their meals. It’s healthy for the students and the school’s buget.

Students line up to make their selections and pay as lunch is served at Lewis & Clark Middle School. Inset at top, labels along the serving line encourage students to add fruit and vegetables to their meals. It’s healthy for the students and the school’s buget.

Food service managers for both the Jefferson City and Blair Oaks public school districts have reported they’ve been able to successfully adapt to a host of nutrition reforms implemented under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Signed into law by President Barack Obama, the statute funds child nutrition programs and free lunch programs in schools for the next five years. In addition, the bill sets new nutrition standards for schools, an initiative of First Lady Michelle Obama in her fight against childhood obesity.

Terri Ferguson, director of food services at JCPS, said making students’ meals more healthy had been a district goal for years prior to the Obama administration, but passage of the act galvanized a few key changes. 

A dash of experimentation

One of the most-significant changes is the creation of calorie ranges for meals. The average meal has 550 to 650 calories for students up to fifth grade. At the high school, the average meal ranges from 750 to 850 calories.

Most of the fryers have been removed from the schools, trans fats were eliminated three years ago and saturated fat now comprises less than 10 percent of each meal, Ferguson said. Chocolate milk is skim, and white milk is 1 percent milkfat, Ferguson added.

But figuring out how to add in whole grains was one of the most-perplexing problems.

“By next year, every bread item that we serve has to be ‘whole-grain rich,’” she said. 

She said a product is determined to be “whole-grain rich” if the first item on the list of ingredients starts with the word “whole,” meaning whole grains are the primary ingredient by weight. She noted fiber, B vitamins and antioxidants are stored in a kernel’s outer bran and nutrient-rich germ.

Ferguson noted it has taken three or four years of experimentation to hit upon acceptable products. Students initially disliked the whole-grain pastas served by staff, but workers discovered a 51 percent mix of white-to-whole wheat pasta they find more palatable.

And the staff have found that brown rice is generally acceptable to students. 

“And now we’ve been working on a whole-grain rich pizza crust,” she said. 

She said there are dozens of products traditionally served by school kitchens that must be reformulated. “For example, breading on chicken nuggets,” she said. “If you think about it, there are a lot of products we have to switch to whole-grain rich.” 

Eat your veggies — and fruit

The new law also requires students to take more fruits and vegetables, for the U.S. government to consider it a “reimbursable” meal. A free lunch is reimbursed at a rate of $2.92; a reduced-price lunch is reimbursed at $2.52 and a paid lunch is reimbursed at 33 cents. The district also gets .2275 cents in commodity assistance per meal. About 15 percent of the food served in the JCPS are USDA-provided “commodities;” the remaining 85 percent is purchased. 

The district charges $2.40 for lunch at the secondary level.

She noted the meal pattern includes: a protein, a bread, a fruit, a vegetable and a milk. In the past, students could take three of those five items — say a hamburger patty, bun and milk — and it would be considered reimbursable. 

“We want them to take all five,” she added. 

Starting in the 2012-13 school year, one of those three items had to be a fruit or vegetable to qualify as a reimbursable meal. But that idea is complicated by the fact that nutritional experts also want students to make their own food choices. And they don’t want to shine an uncomfortable spotlight on students who quality for free and reduced-priced lunches and thus are required to take a fruit or vegetable. 

Ferguson said, with some parental education, and by offering lots of choices they’ve been able to encourage students to both take a fruit or vegetable — which helps the school district out because the meal is now reimbursable — and eat the fruit or vegetable — which helps the student out because the choice is more nutritious. 

She noted at the upper-level schools staff put out between eight and 10 choices daily. “Kids, if you put it in front of them day after day, it snowballs,” she said. “We’re not having any trouble with kids taking fruits and vegetables.” 

On the off chance a students makes it to the cashier without picking up a fruit or a vegetable, the adult will either encourage the student to revisit the line or pop something healthy on their tray. 

“After a few months of doing this, we don’t have much trouble,” Ferguson said.

The next big challenge 

Ferguson said her staff have been able to respond in a positive manner to the challenge of the new regulations.

“There’s been a lot of thought about this way before the Obamas. There’s been a lot of research done by scientists and researchers,” she said. “And there are a lot of things about the new regulations that I like. It forced our industry to create and develop new recipes and products that are better nutritionally.” 

The next big challenge, she said, is reducing the sodium in students’ meals. There are three target dates for America’s schools to meet.

“It’s going to be extremely challenging because Americans love salt,” she lamented. “But the industry is stepping up to reduce sodium.” 

At Blair Oaks, where almost 1,000 children each lunch every day, Blair Oaks food services director Tony Reinkemeyer said the new regulations initially created “a lot of anxiety,” but those fears have mostly been quelled. 

Parents feared students would reject the healthier options and more food would be wasted. Others worried that the new calorie limits were too restrictive and students would feel hungry during the day.

“We were concerned that kids wouldn’t participate in the student lunch program. And we did see between $23,000 and $24,000 in decreased revenues because of lower participation,” Reinkemeyer said. 

But that trend has reversed, he said. 

“Probably because some of the concerns were unnecessary,” he added.

Combatting high food costs

As manager of the school’s kitchens, high food costs is one of the most-critical problems Reinkemeyer copes with daily. “We’re seeing unprecedented pressure on food costs,” he said. 

And the federal nutrition regulations implemented last year only complicated matters. 

“We’re now serving almost two times as much fruit, compared with what used to be served. And it’s not cheap, especially between November and January,” he said. 

But most of the revenues the food service program lost have been recovered, he noted.

Reinkemeyer said his workers have tried to “be creative” to entice children to eat the new meals. A choice of three fruits daily — say a banana, canned peaches or raisins — also appeals to students.

And he noted students are becoming increasingly more amenable to the idea of trying something new and different. 

“Students who, two years ago, wouldn’t even try a new food are now coming along,” he said. “For example, we (when) served kiwi fruits to the middle school students, we used every one we bought. It surprised me.”

Reinkemeyer also said his department has been able to control costs by reducing “payroll hours by a significant amount.”

At a meeting in September, Board of Education member Tim VanRonzelen said one of the No. 1 complaints he hears — particularly from his own kids — is about the low quality of the school’s food. 

“But a new family moved here from Warrensburg, and all they could talk about is: ‘How big the portions are!’ and ‘How big the portions are how good the food is!,’” VanRonzelen said. 

“It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?” Reinkemeyer dryly rejoined.

Superintendent Jim Jones said some districts are discussing opting out of the federal program, but he cautioned the board against considering that.

“We would lose revenue, and we would lose the commodities pipeline,” he said. 

He noted the federal government makes “commodities” — a wide array of foods — available either for free or at a greatly reduced price. The school can then in turn use contract processors who are willing to turn those raw ingredients into foods the school’s kitchen can use in a variety of ways. For example, the school can direct their free cheese commodity to be turned into cheese sticks, shredded cheese or pizzas. 

“And the processors do it at a greatly reduced price because the raw ingredients are free,” Jones said. 

Jones noted if the Blair Oaks School District stopped participating in the federal program, the district could expect revenue shortfalls.

“Lunch prices might have to go up by 75 to 80 cents, or more, to break even,” he explained.

Reinkemeyer said the school district is complying with 100 percent of the federal government’s nutrition and calorie guidelines. But that’s due, in part, because some of the most stringent rules have been “relaxed,” he said. 

For example, originally the rules allowed only 2 ounces of meat per student — even for high school students. He noted that wasn’t enough to satiate the appetites of busy, beefy senior high school football players. 

“We’ve been able to offer more meat and meat alternatives like cheese, without relaxing the calorie guidelines,” Reinkemeyer told the board.

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