School lunches are not what they used to be.
Federal and state mandates governing what students eat have resulted in healthier, more well-rounded choices at lunch time, but for those in charge of putting together school menus, the mandates add one more facet to an already challenging balancing act.
Food service directors often have to juggle making food attractive to the kids and keeping it healthy, all while keeping the operation on budget.
It’s a really big challenge, said Nicola Boehm, food service director for the Burnt Hills Ballston Lake School District.
One of the challenges, said Boehm, is not being repetitive with the food choices and focusing on foods students enjoy.
`They don’t want to eat things like meatloaf and stews. They’d be horrified,` said Boehm.
In a typical week in January, BH-BL high school students’ hot lunch options included grilled cheese, hot turkey burritos, taco salad, and macaroni and cheese.
Typically, said Boehm, she tries to offer foods that are currently popular.
`Food is very fashionable,` she said. `Kids want to eat things like chicken nuggets and chicken patties.`
Boehm said problems sometimes arise when trying to balance what’s popular with what’s healthy.
`We have to have the five food groups every day,` said Boehm, and students need to have three of the five, but, `We encourage them to take all five.`
In addition to balancing health and selection, another challenge includes keeping the service operating in the black.
`We don’t want to make a large profit by any means, but we want (the food service program) to be able to pay for itself, ` said Boehm.
Basic high school and middle school meals at BH-BL cost $2, elementary meals are $1.50, and meals for adult staff, volunteers and visitors are $3.
Roland Laffert, the food service director for independent contractor Aramark, who supervises food services in the Scotia-Glenville School District, said it is a lot of work keeping up with the state’s school meal initiatives.
`It’s a work in progress,` said Laffert. `It’s a training program ` a tool ` for starting nutrition early with the students. Under that umbrella, what we do is eliminate stuff that kids actually like ` French fries, sugar cereals, that sort of thing ` and we try to train the children to make a healthy choice dietary-wise.`
Laffert said that because of the nutrition standards placed on meals, it can be difficult to keep students interested in school-provided lunches.
Another challenge Laffert mentioned is trying to be mindful of differing tastes between male and female students when drawing up the monthly menus.
Male students tend not to be as health-conscious as female students, he said, even at the middle school level, and getting boys interested in health-oriented choices can be hard.
`They want their cheeseburgers,` said Laffert, adding that girls are choosing more salads and healthy foods.
The Guilderland Central Schools food service program, headed by Linda Mossop, takes a different approach to providing healthy meals, and recently began offering nutritious twists on traditionally unhealthy foods. The district offers foods like whole-wheat pizzas and uses whole-wheat burger rolls.
The change to whole wheat was originally met with some resistance from the students.
`Initially, they thought we were trying to push whole wheat down their throats,` said Mossop, but she said that is no longer an issue.
But the change comes with a cost. Mossop said a plain, white dinner roll costs six cents; the whole-wheat alternative costs 13 cents.
In addition to the whole-wheat substitutes, the district uses other approaches to comply with the health guidelines.
`We won’t sell any snack that’s larger than a single serve,` said Mossop.
At the high school, students can add a la carte organic alternatives to their meals. These foods are all natural, with no pesticides or additives, she said.
`Instead of iodized salts, you would use sea salts,` said Mossop. `I think that it’s a healthier alternative.`
The schools’ food service will also be making a push toward eliminating trans fats from the school’s menus, beginning with chicken and French fries next year.
Mossop said student input is still important, and she meets with student representatives regularly to get a sense of what they are looking for, but `as much as we do want to accommodate, we can’t accommodate all the requests.`
Students have made some pretty lofty requests, said Mossop, including lobster ` a choice she admits would be nice but `cost-prohibitive.`
The financial goals of the Guilderland food services program are similar to the other district’s food service programs. As with other districts, a balancing act comes into play when offering healthy alternatives, such as whole-grain bread products, costs more than what was offered in the past. Despite the call for nutritious alternatives, many budgets for school lunch programs are holding steady at pre-mandate levels.
`You want to at least break even,` said Mossop.
Despite the challenges, Mossop said, she is excited about the future of the district’s food service program.
`We’re really taking steps in the right direction,` said Mossop.
SIDEBAR: Group holds high standards for school lunches
By JIM CUOZZO, Spotlight Staff
`No hot dog for me, thank you, I’m having the salad.`
If state nutrition advocates are successful, this phrase could be something students might soon utter as they wait in the school lunch line to choose among several nutritious food choices before heading back to their afternoon science labs or French class.
Aimee Hamlin, the executive director for the state Coalition for Healthy Schools based in Ithaca, said the time to stop obesity in America begins at an early age.
`Sixty-six percent of adults in this country are overweight or obese, and that’s where these kids are heading,` said Hamlin.
The coalition is working to ensure that school district’s works to promote optional plant-based food entrees, healthy snacks, farm-to-school programs and nutrition education to encourage healthier choices.
`This group was formed because we saw there was a huge need to do something about the issue of school food and get involved in it,` said Hamlin.
New dietary guidelines from the Federal Govt. in 2005 call for an average of nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day and at least half the grains eaten be whole grains. Getting rid of deep-fried foods, limiting high-sodium foods and foods with high saturated fats, and eliminating trans fatty acids in foods are just some of the coalition’s recommendations.
School meals currently have to meet federal regulations consistent with federal dietary guidelines calling for more fiber and less saturated fat.
`Not all schools meet the regulations, and there’s not a whole lot of teeth to the regulations,` said Hamlin. Hamlin said in 2004, the federal government, through the child nutrition and WIC (women infant and children) re-authorization act, mandated that all schools create a local wellness policy.
The policy called for better nutrition, more exercise for students, and even offering healthier products in vending machines such as 100 percent real juice instead of sugary sodas.
`A lot of schools have very generous guidelines with no teeth, and other schools take the guidelines very seriously,` said Hamlin.
The New York State Legislature in 2004 passed their own law mandating districts create a Child Nutrition Advisory Committee. The committee’s made up of parents, faculty and school health staff are asked to meet quarterly to study all facets of current school nutritional policies with the overall goal to stop childhood obesity. One key component of the state Legislation is to promote health and proper nutrition through vending machine sales, menus and educational curriculum.
`We have changed to whole-grain products and have eliminated hot dogs from our menu,` said Margaret Lamb, director of the Saratoga Springs school district’s wellness program. Lamb said the school lunch program now offers more chicken entrees and fewer processed foods. They have eliminated French fries in the elementary school. Snapple has been replaced with diet Snapple, and all snacks have to have fewer than 15 grams of sugar. The old vending machine with potato chips and cookies was replaced with a healthy snack vending machine purchased though a grant from the United States Dairy Council.
`Some of the kids like it, and some do not,` Lamb said. `We have made a lot of changes.` School meals might be where the most recognizable changes have taken place, but Hamlin said every aspect of a child’s day in school should be based on healthy alternatives.
`Teachers need to stop giving kids food rewards, and candy fundraisers have to stop,` said Hamlin.
Hamlin said she believes school food directors do the most they can to provide children with quality meals with the funding they receive. The problem, she said, is the formula for funding school lunch’s forces food directors to use commodity foods like cheese, ground beef and white potatoes instead of more nutritious foods like fresh carrots and fresh green vegetables. `The fact that food service directors can pull off anything is amazing,` Hamlin said.
Tom Cook, food service director for the Bethlehem Central School District, said he has increased the amount of locally grown produce on the menu, and the students are enjoying the benefits.
`The kids enjoy a fresh apple wedge or carrots in a bag instead of serving them canned carrots,` said Cook, who said he agrees with Hamlin that serving fresh farm products is more costly for the overall school lunch program.
`It’s an absolute challenge, no question about it,` said Cook.
Other changes in the Bethlehem meal program include offering healthier fare like turkey wraps and quesadilla’s and even vegetarian chili.
`The vegetarian chili we offered bombed out,` said Cook, but he said that doesn’t mean it won’t be on the menu again in the future.
The cost of a school lunch can range anywhere from $1.30 to $2.30, and most school lunch directors said they believe it is unreasonable for anyone to think that amount can provide for the kind of nutritious lunch that many parents want their sons and daughters to receive.
`We are trying to maintain financially,` said Lamb, adding that next year, the federal government will provide food service directors a list of choices to pick and choose certain food that will continue to be subsidized.
`We have done a lot and feel committed to staying with it,` said Lamb.
Cook said there is nothing more distressing than seeing a hungry student looking for food at the end of a school day.
`It’s upsetting to me to see some kids come to me at 2 p.m. or 2:30 p.m. in the afternoon — after they have skipped lunch ` and say, ‘I’m starving, can you sell me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,’` Cook said.
For information about the Coalition for Healthy School Foods, call (607) 272-1154 or visit the Web at www.healthylunches.org.“