WALLENPAUPACK - Years ago, in schools, before calories were counted and ingredients were measured; kids had to eat what cafeteria staff placed on their plates. Today, kids are choosing meals that have been carefully prepared to meet the latest nutritional standards set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, districts have had to abide by the regulations since the fall of 2012 in order to receive $.06 back for every meal served, said Brenda Zeiler, the Food Service Director for the Wallenpaupack School District.
In May 2012, the district served 48,019 lunches with a daily average of 2,401. But, a year later, the number increased to 49,606 lunches served, with 2,255 served daily. Breakfast increased to 21,265 in 2013 from 17,231 in May 2012. Although the reimbursement is only $.06, it may go a long way when 17,939 students received free or reduced lunch in May 2013 and only 3,326 of the lunches paid. The school does receive a reimbursement with the paid lunches though. The change in the meal plan, Zeiler said, is the first since the 1950's.
Before the new standards, Zeiler said she used to develop the menus around the entree, but today, she works around the vegetables. Zeiler, who is a registered dietician, said the standards have a lot of good points. Students have to take half a cup of fruit or half a cup of vegetables and the categories are grade based, so there are specific requirements for the portions for the grades, Zeiler explained.
When planning the meals, she has to look at quantities of the ingredients, where students in elementary school receive seven pieces of popcorn chicken and high school students receive 11 pieces. With meals like popcorn chicken, the amount of protein has to be considered, Zeiler said because of the breading. This year, 50 percent of the breads have to be whole grain rich.
Aside from the change in ingredients, students are choosing what they eat as part of the, "offer verse serve," concept. Now, kids go through the line and they may consider cheese or peperoni pizza, rather than being given cheese. Even though there may be a variety of vegetables that the kids can choose from, Zeiler said to ensure that kids are taking the foods, the cashier checks that there is either half a cup of fruit or vegetables on their tray.
Initially, Zeiler said the kids weren't sure of what to make of the changes, but by preparing the foods differently like roasting Brussels sprouts, she said things have gotten better as the staff encourages the kids to try the foods. Even still, although there is the effort of the staff and "offer verses serve," it doesn't mean kids will necessarily eat what they chose. Zeiler said "hopefully," they will and to make the food more appealing, chefs have worked with the staff to learn additional recipes to change the typical vegetables kids may think they don't like. With the vegetables for instance, some may be mixed with a little olive oil and roasted in the oven so the oil is caramelized for the sweetness to come out. Or, rather than just offering carrots, additional vegetables like broccoli and cucumbers may be available too.
Portion sizes, Zeiler said are one of the primary changes with the new standards, followed by the emphasis on vegetables. But, the bottom line is that she wants the food to be, "healthy and wholesome," she added. Aside from breads being whole grain, milk is no longer regular or two percent. Instead, skim comes in white, chocolate or strawberry and there is one percent white.
Zeiler admitted that she thought she had a good sense of a balanced diet, but the changes in portion sizes and calorie restrictions has made it, "tricky," because of the details. She explained that she can't go over in calories, but yet, sometimes there may be too few calories.
For students who don't want the day's special, there is the option to have what was served the day before. Looking at the trays on several tables, it was apparent that students took advantage of the opportunity to have yesterday's special. Sixth grader, Madison often buys her lunch. With her pizza, she had a dinner roll and carrots, which she said were, "good." The food, she said is, "not that bad actually." Although she is satisfied with the food, she did add that the portions are too small. She explained that the servings of the rotini pasta leave "everybody hungry."
One girl said she appreciated the fruit options because as an athlete she often gets hungry. While another said she liked that the students have more than one option.