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Feeding our children: RSU 10 works on slow, steady change
MEAL TIME — High School students pass through the lunch line with their meals at Buckfield Junior-Senior High School. In RSU 10, focus is on providing students with a full meal, according to Nutrition Director Jeanne LaPointe.
BUCKFIELD — School districts across the country are altering school food to comply with new federal nutrition guidelines.
Health and nutrition advocates have welcomed the changes, but food service and nutrition departments are challenged by the new rules.
In RSU 10, which sprawls across northwestern Oxford County, implementing the changes has come with its own set of challenges.
Nutrition Director Jeanne LaPointe says schools in the district were already moving in the direction of the new standards by using whole grains and increasing fruit and vegetable servings.
But implementation has been slowed by the suddenness of the new standards LaPointe says, especially in RSU 10, still coordinating the consolidation of three school districts in 2009.
Changes in RSU 10
As nutrition director for now-defunct SAD 43, LaPointe used higher wellness standards than others in the state – salad bars were installed in every lunch room and four servings of fruits and vegetables a day were required.
Those standards were implemented in RSU 10 schools after consolidation.
"There's a lot of growing pains about bringing three school districts that operated differently together," LaPointe says.
The new standards have further complicated consolidation.
In the kitchen
Because RSU 10 grew out of three former districts, it lacks a centralized production kitchen – instead, nearly every school has its own.
"We're not a hub-and-spoke ... everyone is ordering and cooking in that kitchen," LaPointe says.
That means kitchens are serving schools that might have multiple age levels – with the new standards, that can get complicated.
Rossie Kyllonen, the kitchen manager at Buckfield Junior-Senior High School, says the challenge is to figure out how to cook and serve food that will work for all students.
The small kitchen has to produce meals for middle school and high school students and align its meals to different standards for the two age groups.
According to the new standards, grades 6 through 8 should receive two-and-a-half cups of fruit and three-and-a-half cups of vegetables every week. High schoolers receive five cups a week.
The rules for grains are different too – middle schoolers receive eight to 10 ounces of grains while high schoolers receive 10 to 12.
The total daily calorie totals, between breakfast and lunch, are 600 to 700 for grades 6 through 8, and 750 to 850 for grades 9 through 12.
The standards even have color requirements for fruits and vegetables.
Trying to navigate the new standards while accurately documenting every meal has been hard, Kyllonen admits – the production records aren't where she'd like them to be.
The kitchen is required to keep daily production records showing food components and quantities for reimburseable meals. Those records are necessary for reimbursement.
LaPointe says the district had to redesign its production records to make it easier for Kyllonen and other kitchen managers to record meals for different age groups.
Adjusting to the new rules has been a steep learning curve, LaPointe says.
"We were so comfortable," she explains. "Nothing had really changed in terms of the meal pattern in school nutrition for a couple of decades."
Before the new standards came into effect, RSU 10 kitchens were doing a lot of scratch cooking – homemade soups were particularly popular with students, LaPointe says.
Now, the district is back at the drawing board – LaPointe says she had to revise the September menu 10 times before it met the standards.
Meeting the standards and accurately recording them is a must for the district – the rules make meals more expensive, making federal reimbursement that much more important.
To offset the cost of more expensive meals, additional reimbursement will be provided for schools, provided their menus meet the new standards.
"Once we receive certification from USDA we will receive $.06 more per meal," says LaPointe, "but certainly ... it's going to cost more than $.06 more per meal."
Receiving that additional $.06 is important for RSU 10 – the district largely funds its nutrition program on federal reimbursement for free/reduced-price lunches.
Last year, 65 percent of RSU 10 students were eligible for the program and the district received more than $1 million in federal and state reimbursement, nearly $577,000 from lunch alone.
The district also uses its free/reduced rates to determine how it feeds students, LePointe says, especially in high school.
RSU 10 focuses on providing students a full meal, rather than a snack bar.
"Over in this region, with free and reduced rates being higher, kids are looking for that value and so are parents," LaPointe says.
That means fewer a la carte choices than some other area high schools – at Buckfield Junior-Senior High School, there is no warming area full of fries, burgers and pizza.
Snack options, like chips, cookies and ice cream bars are available for students to purchase, but are kept under lock and key – literally – until all the students have gone through the lunch line.
LaPointe admits that some teens feel like they aren't getting enough to eat and some parents can afford to buy additional lunches for them.
"For some parents, to spend that $4 or $5 a day isn't really a burden," LaPointe says.
But for those who cannot, receiving a full meal can be crucial and that's where the district places its focus.
Despite the revenue a la carte can bring in, RSU 10 has gotten away from the model, LaPointe says.
"It wasn't all that long ago that we were making whoopie pies and cookies the size of your head ... That is changing in front of our eyes. That has gone away."
RSU 10 has made a point of providing students with local food.
At Buckfield Junior-Senior High, some produce is harvested by students from a 1.2 acre garden next to the school.
Kyllonen, the Buckfield kitchen manager, takes full advantage of the garden when she can.
"We try to depend on them as much as we can ... it's fun to have all the fresh stuff," says Kyllonen. She always asks what's available before ordering food and tries to stock the salad bar.
That's a pretty radical change for a school that, before consolidation, didn't even have a salad bar, says LaPointe.
That convenience is extraordinary, but also limited – by the time school starts back up the outdoor growing season is almost over and there's no guarantee the garden will have what she needs.
The district also purchases local produce through a USDA grant that provides elementary students with extra servings of fruits and vegetables.
Not only does that purchasing help local vendors, it also adds variety for students – local vendors can provide foods that the district's big suppliers cannot.
"The fruit and veggie grant is all about introducing kids to new stuff they've never eaten," says LaPointe. "So when you introduce it to them here on the [lunch] line, you're reinforcing that."
The district has been experimenting with different types of produce, like Brussels sprouts, fiddleheads and pomegranates and new food choices, like carrot fries, fish chowder and squash mac and cheese, with varying degrees of success.
As the district becomes more comfortable with the new standards, designing new menus may become easier, LaPointe guesses, but the process won't be quick.
She doesn't predict school lunches will go through radical changes like those portrayed in the ABC television show Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution.
"I think Jamie Oliver taught us all something and that is, if you try and come in and make wholesale change, you're just going to come up against a brick wall," LaPointe says.
"And that's not how to make change happen. It's not your way or the highway; it's slow progress.
"It's sampling food, it's getting feedback, it's rolling out another item. It's slow, but that's okay – I'd rather finesse a handful of recipes the kids like than just try to go crazy with 20."
Editor's Note: This is the second of a multi-part series on school food.