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Changes planned in the lunchroom

Less fat, more fiber and fewer processed foods will soon be found in school lunches.

District 833 elementary school students will see a new lunch menu Monday, Oct. 2.

Only one main entrée will be offered, but students will have the choice of an entirely separate meal similar to something they'd get from a deli that is already packaged.

The changes are in response to parents' concerns that there are too many choices for elementary students and too many ready-made processed foods, according to Barb Osthus, director of nutrition services, and Jennifer Gels, assistant director.

"We looked at what other districts are doing and we saw that most districts have only one main entrée and an alternative," Gels said.

On Monday, Oct. 2, the main entree is chicken or cheese quesadillas, Mexican rice, milk and quesadilla condiments. Students must take two out of the four items.

Students can also choose a meal offered in take-out containers one would find in a supermarket deli, containing a turkey/ranch wrap, pretzels, fruit and baby carrots with ranch dressing.

The alternate choice is the same throughout the week to encourage students to eat the main menu items for variety rather than eating the alternative every day, Osthus and Gels said.

Offering fewer choices will help the department cut down on pre-packaged foods. To achieve the 40 choices a month offered last year without adding more labor and food costs, more packaged food such as chicken nuggets and pizza were served. They will still be there, but offered only once a month, according to Osthus.

"Students would kill us if we stopped serving pizza," she said.

What the kids don't know is that the pizza crust is made from whole-wheat flour. This year's chicken nuggets will be made with white meat only and not a mix of white and dark.

"There is less fat in white meat," Gels said.

If white and whole-wheat dinner rolls are served, students overwhelmingly choose white, according to Osthus.

To skirt the whole-wheat snub, whole-wheat flour that appears to be white is used in pizza.

Homemade entrees will make up 37.5 percent of those served, up from 28 percent last year, Gels said. The change in the percentage of fresh sandwich and salad choices is up dramatically from 5 percent to 17 percent.

The federal government requires that one-third of a child's daily calorie intake, 664 calories, be in school lunches.

Some parents complain that their children come home hungry, Osthus said. "That's because the child did not eat the fruit and vegetable that were offered," she said. "It's a balancing act to respond to parents calling for healthy lunches and what kids like to eat," she said.

The new plan is a good start toward getting healthier foods into the mouths of kids, said parent Kathy Johnson.

"It's a step in the right direction," Johnson said at a meeting between parents concerned about school food and the department directors. "But my dream is to bring organic farm food to schools."

Osthus said she is piloting a program at Red Rock Elementary School and Valley Crossing School to offer fresh fruit, salads and organic milk.

"That's a terrific idea," said Sue Alberts.

If there is demand for the products, Osthus said she would order coolers for all elementary schools.

The schools have already made some changes to promote healthy eating.

There are no vending machines in elementary schools.

Changes have been taking place in secondary schools as well.

Two years ago, Twinkies and Little Debbie items were removed from a la carte items. Baked potato chips replaced fried chips with no complaints from students.

"I was shocked at the acceptance of the chips," Osthus said. "We didn't have a significant drop in revenues. It surprised me."

"Some grumbling" was heard when high-fructose juices were replaced with 100 percent juice products in smaller containers, she said.

To implement new, more healthful lunches, food service hired Tom Whitney, a marketing consultant.

He met with students in all grade levels and asked them what their favorite place is to eat when they are not eating at home. Osthus and Gels were astounded at the answer.

"Not one kid said McDonald's or Burger King," Osthus said.

"It was Subway because they could see their sandwich being made," Gels said.

Based on that, a build-your-own-sub lunch will be offered Tuesday, Oct. 4, in elementary schools as the main entrée. In addition to the sub, fresh fruit and fruit juice will be offered.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
(651) 459-7600