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Feeding our children: SAD 17 looks to synergize lunch changes with health, nutrition education
OXFORD HILLS — In September, for the first time in 15 years, school lunch rooms across the country started serving meals with updated nutrition standards.
The standards, which only apply to meals served through the National School Lunch Program, were outlined in the 2010 Healthier, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
The changes include increasing servings of fruit and vegetables, only providing low-fat or fat-free milk, reducing sodium, trans fats and saturated fats and limiting calories based on student age.
In SAD 17, wellness advocates are encouraged by the changes and hope to integrate them with the district's other healthy initiatives.
But for Food Service Director Martha O'Leary, integrating some of the changes has been frustrating.
O'Leary says the district already focused on providing students with fresh fruits and vegetables before the standards, and has now switched to using only whole grain bread.
But some of the standards are too strict, O'Leary says.
The salad bar, for example, used to include a pasta salad option, but the new standards count it as an additional grain. As a result, the school can no longer serve it at the salad bar.
That limits the options for students who relied on the salad bar, O'Leary says.
"For kids that made their meal out of the salad bar, now they don't have as many choices, besides fresh fruits and vegetables," she explains.
Instead of pasta salad, choices include cannellini beans, black beans and beets, but they're not popular.
"We're going to end up throwing a good portion of those out,” O'Leary says. “Some kids will eat them but a lot of kids have never been exposed to them and they just don't want to try them."
The lunch choices available on a recent visit to SAD 17's production kitchen at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School certainly didn't appear at first glance to reflect a radical change.
Choices included pizza, chicken nuggets, ham and cheese sandwiches or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Each "meal deal" comes with a choice of vegetables, salad bar and milk.
The new standards change the ratio of fruits and vegetables to meat, dairy and grain – which complicates designing menus that meet, but don't exceed or fall below the required amount of calories.
Moreover, “seconds” on main meals are out – fruits and veggies are fair game, but students can now only receive one main course.
Changes in portion size haven't been popular, even with district staff – O'Leary says that one school principal has called her upset that students weren't getting enough food.
“I said 'I'm doing what the government tells me to do,'” O'Leary recounts.
Last week, O'Leary organized a Thanksgiving meal for students – she says it didn't meet the new standards, but doesn't regret it.
“I thought, 'you know what? It's once a year; some of these kids aren't even going to get a Thanksgiving dinner at home.'”
“We still want our kids to eat," O'Leary says. "That's why I'm in the business – to feed our kids."
When O'Leary mentions "the business,” she's not kidding.
SAD 17's food service program is totally self-funded through federal reimbursements and cash sales from its a la carte menu at the middle and high school.
"We're one of the few in the state that are totally self-supporting in that we don't ask the town for one penny of their money," O'Leary says.
The federal reimbursement SAD 17 receives is based on the number of students eligible to receive free or reduced price lunch. Eligibility is based on poverty.
Last year, 63 percent of SAD 17 students qualified for free/reduced lunch. In some schools, more than 70 percent were eligible.
According to data from the Maine Department of Education, SAD 17 served 308,608 school lunches, of which 234,415 were free in 2011 and 2012.
The district is reimbursed $2.86 cents for every free lunch it serves and $2.46 for every reduced cost meal – last year, the average cost to produce a lunch was $2.35. In 2012, the district received $1.92 million in federal and state reimbursements for food programs, $641,000 for lunch alone.
The district also receives funding, based on free/reduced numbers, from USDA to purchase commodities – excess agricultural goods – to supplement sales from private vendors.
Most commodity food is processed, O'Leary says. She estimates every school lunch contains at least one commodity item.
But some USDA commodities don't meet the new nutrition standards, O'Leary says. Neither do products from private vendors – distributors are playing catch-up with the new rules.
Luckily, the new standards don't apply to one of the district's biggest money-makers.
A la carte
“I would love to see the day when they don't want to buy hamburgers and they don't want to buy pizza,” O'Leary says.
“But you're dealing with teenagers – if it's not offered here, they can go across the street.”
The cash-only a la carte menu for pizza, french fries, onion rings, cheeseburgers, ice cream, pre-made sandwiches and salads certainly isn't the healthiest option in the lunchroom.
But it is an important revenue generator for the district. According to DOE, the district brought in $100,692 in a la carte sales last year.
The options are getting healthier, too. Pizza is now made with whole wheat flour and fries and onion rings are baked now, not deep fried.
Students have generally reacted well to the changes, O'Leary says – after initial resistance, students have generally accepted the new pizza.
Sales of fried food, however, have dipped since the switch to baking, O'Leary reports.
Internally, the district is also looking at changing how it produces and distributes food to its students.
The entire district's food is currently produced at the huge production kitchen at OHCHS then delivered to schools.
A centralized kitchen can be efficient, but it also relies on processed foods. Food service employees scratch cook when they can, but producing 2,400 meals a day in one kitchen means efficiency takes priority.
“When you serve in quantity, you lose quality,” O'Leary points out.
Now, the district is looking at changing its model – kitchens in some larger schools might get updated to produce on site, O'Leary says. Paris Elementary has received a new convection oven, for example.
But to outfit all the school kitchens will take a serious committment – new equipment, renovations and labor are expensive, O'Leary says.
While they have proved problematic, wellness advocates hope to pair the new nutrition standards to other initiatives and improve student nutrition and health.
District Health Coordinator Pat Carson hopes to increase the share of local food in the food service by purchasing local produce with a USDA fresh fruits and vegetables grant, that provides elementary students with additional servings of fruit every week.
“You want to keep as many of your dollars locally as possible,” Carson says.
Perhaps more important is introducing students to unfamiliar fruits and vegetables.
O'Leary says that if students learn early, eating healthy might be second nature when they get to high school.
Healthy Oxford Hills' Kate Goldberg is trying to address that challenge by offering additional nutrition education to elementary students. Goldberg's aim is to introduce students to new, healthy foods that can be locally sourced.
In the spring, Goldberg and Carson plan to bring students to Roberts Farm, which has already had an impact on healthy eating.
Goldberg says she has received calls from parents asking about vegetables like kale because their children were raving about it after visiting the farm for fall and summer programs.
The change also affects the lunch line – O'Leary says students who attended Roberts Farm are more likely to try new food at school.
Effecting wholesale nutritional change at the school level is a slow process. O'Leary, Carson and Goldberg have no illusions that change will happen overnight, but big strides are being made.
Editor's Note: This is the first of a multi-part series on school food.
COMFORT FOOD — The a la carte stall at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School. Students can purchase items like fries, onion rings and cheeseburgers from the a la carte menu. SAD 17 Food Services Director Martha O'Leary says the a la carte revenue is important to the business' bottom line.