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The Times
  • Schools strive to meet new federal nutrition standards

  • Since the adoption of new federal nutrition standards for school lunches nationwide, schools have been forced to offer fresh fruits and vegetables to students. Calories and fat now must be counted, too. Area school districts have had to revise their menus — significantly in some cases.

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  • When Stella Sponsler started in her first kitchen in 1989, cleaning chickens and mixing meatloaf kept her and the rest of the Springfield (Ill.) High School lunch staff busy.
    “We made grandma meals,” she recalled. “We did our own baking, too. We made the best peanut butter cookies.”
    Sponsler now manages the kitchen at Sandburg Elementary School in Harvey, Ill., where students won’t see any cookies on the menu. Instead, lunch offerings include a colorful array of fruits and vegetables.
    Since the adoption of new federal nutrition standards for school lunches nationwide, schools have been forced to offer fresh fruits and vegetables to students. Calories and fat now must be counted, too.
    School districts have had to revise their menus — significantly in some cases. In Illinois, however, there have been no student boycotts of the new offerings, as has been the case in some school districts across the country.
    At Sandburg, it’s been smooth sailing so far, even though Sponsler said she wishes she could still give her students a treat now and then.
    Peppers, radishes
    The Springfield (Ill.) School District converted its menus last school year in anticipation of the new federal rules.
    According to the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, school districts that want to be reimbursed for their meals through the National School Lunch Program must abide by the new standards, which include requirements to offer fresh fruits and vegetables and whole-grain options. There also are specific calorie limits on meals for elementary, middle and high school students, and even milk breaks must be fat-free.
    Part of that push has brought salad bars to several local elementary schools. Sandburg was one of the first.
    “At first, they weren’t sure,” Sponsler said of the students. “But once we got it, they absolutely love it.”
    Sponsler said she watches what’s popular with the students and what’s not, in order to avoid handing out unwanted food.
    Fresh green peppers, for example, weren’t that interesting to students in their salads, but as a snack, they’ve been were very popular. To get her kids to eat radishes, Sponsler slices them up and presents them in a cup as a treat.
    Chickpeas, on the other hand, are not coming back, she said.
    Choices offered
    Mary Perce, food services coordinator for the Ball-Chatham School District and kitchen manager at Glenwood Middle School in Chatham, Ill., is delighted with the new guidelines, despite some hiccups along the way.
    At first, students balked at whole-grain bread and pizza crusts, which were darker in color than they were used to.
    Page 2 of 3 - “So we’ve made little changes. Now, we’ve got this white whole-grain bread, and you can’t tell the difference,” Perce said.
    Since students must take either a fruit or vegetable with their lunches, Perce focuses on making presentations appetizing and giving students plenty of options to avoid lots of uneaten food.
    “Bottom line, we have to offer them choices,” she said. “We can’t shove it down their throats.”
    New to the middle school’s lunch lines this year are kiwis, sliced oranges, peaches and even hummus and pita chips. The least healthy entree the kitchen staff serves, Perce said, is macaroni and cheese.
    To reward students for being good sports about the menus, she has declared the end of the week whole-grain-free Fridays.
    “(The menus) are going to be partially the person’s choice who runs the cafeteria,” Perce said. “It didn’t bother me one bit to get rid of potatoes and french fries.”
    Jaelyn and Jocelyn Fluker, twin 13-year-old eighth-graders at GMS, said they’ve welcomed the new menus, but they’ve noticed a few classmates throwing away their vegetables.
    Jocelyn said she’s OK with the new rules because of the nation’s problem with obesity, but at the same time, the food isn’t what she and her sister were used to.
    ‘Little leeway’
    A few miles south in Auburn, Ill., food services director Stacey Malone said offering only whole-grain bread continues to be a battle, because the regulations limit how many times a cafeteria can offer certain starches or grains.
    “If you serve a lot of sandwiches, each half of a bun counts as one (whole-grain unit), and younger grades can only have nine (units) a week,” Malone said. “If you get another whole-grain item, then it kind of limits the other kind of things you can put on the menu.”
    The rules are strict, down to how often red and orange or green vegetables are served. Calorie counts in lunches must not exceed 600 to 650 calories for kindergarten through eighth-grade students and 850 to 900 calories for high school students.
    “They’re tough,” said Jan Miller, food services director for the Springfield School District. “They’ve got them pretty strict, and there’s very little leeway. It’s tough to stay within calories and to stay within the number of grains in breads.”
    But among the 11,000 students Miller’s staff feeds each day, there hasn’t been any measurable pushback on the new rules.
    “Our kids are eating us out of house and home,” Miller said. “I’ve put fruit and vegetable bars and given them a very wide selection of fresh and canned fruits, different types of salads and vegetables. Our kids will find something on that bar that they will like.”
    Page 3 of 3 - No fries with that
    A common complaint among older students, though, is the transformation or elimination of a longtime meal staple: french fries.
    “We kind of took their fries away,” Miller said. “With (the rules) being so strict with saturated fat, we said, ‘OK, well, we’ll just do baked fries. Tried to do horseshoes with baked fries and, I don’t know, it didn’t turn out the same. That type of thing is (history). The nachos with the cheese sauce with no nutritional value is gone.”
    Miller said her food costs have increased a bit because students are eating more than they used to, probably an effect of having many students in the district who rely on their schools for their meals.
    “A lot of our kids don’t get a breakfast at home,” she noted.
    But in Rochester, Ill., where there are fewer low-income students, those who can “vote with their feet” (by bringing their lunch) on the new regulations may choose to do so,” said School Superintendent Tom Bertrand. “If that happens, then we would see a decrease in food service revenue.”
    Business services director Bob McDermott confirmed that the district has seen a dip in meal purchases so far this semester.
    “The higher grain content in breads and pasta are receiving most of the criticism for the decreased participation,” he said. “Also some of the new vegetables that we are required to serve are not always being consumed.”
    Bertrand said the district also is monitoring whether the new rules have a significant impact on the schools’ cost for trash hauling.
    Little advice
    The rules were handed down with little advice on how to carry them out, Miller said, so it’s up to kitchen managers to learn how to adapt the requirements to their students’ desires.
    “It’s frustrating because they came out with these regulations so late, and I don’t think they communicated them really well,” Miller said. “Districts are kind of struggling right now with how to get it all done.”
    Follow Molly Beck her at twitter.com/MollyBeckSJR.
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