Quantities, components set by USDA guidelines
(Editor’s note: Last week the Times ran a story about the Forest Lake school district food service. This week the series continues.)
It’s a big job to get kids to eat right. For nine months of the year, most families trust the school district to provide a noon meal that will get kids through the second half of the day.
Like parents, food service workers struggle with trade-offs and compromises. If kids won’t eat a certain food, it doesn’t matter how nutritious it is.
A few generations ago, a student’s lunch pail might have been packed by a loving mother who baked the bread, churned the butter from her own cow’s milk and grew the apples to make the apple butter. City kids could walk home for a hot lunch served by mom herself.
Things have changed.
Public schools in larger cities started serving hot lunches in the early 1900s. The federal government got involved, helping to distribute agricultural surpluses. By the 1940s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was allocating $100 million a year for the school lunch program.
Since 1946 the federal government has subsidized low-cost or free school lunch meals to qualified students. Schools receive a cash reimbursement for each meal served.
Split pea soup with bread and butter might have been on the menu back then. These days, a school lunch has fresh vegetables and fruits trucked in from far-away, not-frozen fields. Macaroni and cheese, tacos and hot dogs are on the menu. Students are offered choices, including an alternate menu.
It’s all aimed at meeting their bodies’ needs while satisfying their taste buds.
USDA guidelines require that the school offer five components in each lunch: fruit, vegetables, grain, protein and milk.
The student is not required to take each component, but in order for the lunch to count as a reimbursable meal for state and federal funds, the student must choose at least three, and one must be a fruit or vegetable. The cashier keeps track of the numbers, and districtwide, about 90 percent of the meals qualify.
“It took a while,” Food Service Supervisor Kathy Hoff said. When the federal program started in 2012, compliance was around 70 percent.
To help kids get their fruits and vegetables, the food service offers two choices.
“I’ve found that if we offer only one, they don’t take it,” she said.
Hoff said older kids tend to be better at eating vegetables. Corn, french fries and baby carrots are favorites of younger kids.
The color of the vegetables is another requirement. Each week a minimum number of offerings must be orange, red or green. Salad counts as a green vegetable, but iceberg lettuce does not. Now the district offers only romaine and baby spinach.
For orange color, the district tried introducing sweet potato fries. At first, a mix of fries from white potatoes and sweet potatoes was offered.
“The kids said, ‘I don’t want any of the orange ones,’” Hoff said.
Students are allowed to return to the line for seconds on fruits and vegetables.
At least 51 percent of bread and pasta – even the breading on the cheese sticks – must be whole grain. To keep pasta products appealing for picky eaters, the food service staff found a product that looks white and has a smooth texture.
USDA guidelines for protein, sodium and calories differ for grades K-5, 6-8 and 9-12. This makes it tricky for Forest Lake food servers, as sixth-graders here attend elementary school and ninth-graders attend junior high. To meet the guidelines, different serving sizes are given to students in these grades.
Students who participate in after-school sports need more fuel. Hoff said parents need not worry too much about that.
“If they eat everything we offer, I hope it will get them through,” she said.
The high school used to sell food after school from 3-5 p.m., but the program was discontinued last year for lack of participation.
Elementary students are charged $2.10, and secondary students $2.40, for a lunch. Add 40 cents for milk or 50 cents for juice, and the total is just under $3.
Adults pay $3.35. Teachers and other staff are welcome to take advantage of a school-cooked hot lunch.
A parent can even come to school and dine with his or her child. All it takes is a phone call to the school ahead of time. This happens mostly with younger children at the elementary schools.
Vending machines offer pop in the teachers lounges and staff areas.
State and federal law forbid pop being sold to students during lunch, Business Manager Larry Martini said. The Forest Lake district is even more strict: The schools have no pop machines in student areas.
Because students may at times access the staff pop machines, the vending machine supplier has installed timers on the machines to shut them off during the lunch hour.
Scrambled eggs, yogurt, cinnamon rolls, cheese omelets, cinnamon toast – there’s much more here than cereal and milk.
Elementary students are charged $1.20 for breakfast and secondary students $1.50.
All students are eligible for school breakfast, not just those in school-age child care. Students who arrive on the bus are also invited to this meal, important to keep kids energetic and focused.
There isn’t much time, though, between when the buses arrive and when school starts. So two months ago, Hoff implemented a trial program at Forest View Elementary.
Students get off the bus and head for the cafeteria. There they can go to either the regular breakfast line or the grab-and-go line, where they get a bagged breakfast to eat in the classroom.
Teachers like this idea, she said, because kids get to class on time. The program may be expanded to other schools next year.
Once a month, breakfast includes a doughnut. It’s by far the favorite breakfast. But to meet new guidelines, the donut has to change.
“I’m looking for a whole-grain donut,” Hoff said.
The number of elementary students eating breakfast is higher, at 15.75 percent participation, compared to 7.5 percent participation at the secondary level.
Many high school students drive themselves to school, Hoff, said, and stop along the way to buy breakfast.
But a school breakfast is free for students who get free lunch and also for those who get reduced-price lunch.
“Some families may not know that breakfast is free for these kids,” she said. She encourages them to take advantage of the breakfast option.