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North country schools grapple with lunch changes

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You can lead children to whole grains, but you cannot make them eat.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture overhauled the school lunch program on Wednesday to integrate whole grains, fresh vegetables and low-fat milk into students’ diets.

Although many schools in the nation will have to make major changes to lunch menu staples such as pizza and french fries, schools throughout the region have been working on making menus healthier all year. These changes come at a cost, however.

“I’m very disappointed that there’s not going to be a 6 percent increase in our monthly reimbursement until our school comes up for (Coordinated Review Effort-School Meal Initiative) review,” said Lisa A. Strait, South Lewis Central School’s food service director.

She said its next review might be in the 2013-14 school year. Until then, the school will have to budget more money toward the legumes and squash she is integrating into the menu to make it more healthy.

The director of food services at the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Services said money is a primary issue there as well.

“Our major concern is that it’s going to increase the costs,” said Arlis M. Frego, who is also the president of the New York School Nutrition Association. “Right now, the portion sizes are really going to increase for fruit and vegetables.”

Most schools in the north country were proactive in making changes earlier because they knew the overhaul was coming.

“There was a meeting last April or May, and we were given a heads-up about the changes by the government services,” said Todd C. Marshall, cafeteria manager at Sackets Harbor Central School.

In the fall, low-fat flavored and regular milk were switched to skim milk. Fruits and vegetables are on the menu daily. At Sackets Harbor, pizza is made in the kitchen and nary a french fry has been seen in the past three years.

However, Mr. Marshall has noticed children have not been keen on whole-grain bread and pasta.

“Todd did try to introduce the kids to whole grains a year ago, and the kids responded negatively,” Sackets Harbor Superintendent Frederick E. Hall Jr. said.

Mr. Marshall said he even tried mixing whole grain and white pasta in saucy dishes such as macaroni and cheese, but to no avail.

Currently, the district orders a whole-grain white bread — a temporary fix — that has proven to be acceptable during lunch periods. However, all grain products have to be switched to whole wheat by the 2013-14 school year.

“The bottom line is that this is a dance between nutritional guidelines, production costs and whether the consumer will eat it,” Mr. Hall said.

However, considering the menu changes in the past two years, it is possible whole grains will be better accepted by the time the menu has to switch over.

Note the difference two years make at Sackets Harbor:

n Jan. 26, 2010: Boneless pork chops, whipped potatoes with gravy, applesauce, corn and milk. Pizza is a meal alternative.

n Jan. 26, 2012: Italian dunkers, green beans, fresh fruit and milk. Chicken patties are a meal alternative.

Processed fruit has been replaced with fresh produce. The milk is now skim. Starchy vegetables have been reduced.

There is also a deli option that includes several types of meat, fresh lettuce and tomatoes and whole grain wraps and bread.

Ann S. Easter, Indian River Central School District’s food service director, also said whole-wheat products have been the most difficult to introduce on the lunch menu. Many students have not responded well to whole-wheat spaghetti. However, brown rice and whole-wheat bread have become more popular as they have been integrated into the menu.

“I think it’s one of those changes that will be a little more gradual,” Ms. Easter said. “I think we’re all glad to have one and a half more years.”

She also said she thinks lowering sodium content will be another big challenge when planning menus. Sodium must be less than 640 milligrams per meal for elementary pupils and is adjusted for different age groups, according to a USDA nutrition chart provided to school districts Thursday.

Other food service directors agree.

Mrs. Strait said frozen foods producers are going to have to cut their sodium content in half if they want to continue to make a profit.

“I think this is going to be a major overhaul, not just for the kids and parents, but for the manufacturers as well,” she said.

Saturated fat also has to be reduced. Trans-fats are expected to be eliminated completely.

Also eliminated are the foods that students are simply not enjoying. Mr. Marshall changed his menu two years ago after surveying students about what they really wanted to eat. Today, broccoli and carrots are requested, but glazed carrots have not gone over well. According to Mr. Hall, approximately 70 percent are buying hot lunches, a record number for the school.

“Kids have discriminating palates,” Mr. Hall said. “They know what they want to eat.”

Mr. Frego agreed.

“We’re concerned about plate waste,” he said. “There needs to be a way for food service directors to monitor what is thrown away.”

Plate waste occurs when a student has a food item on his or her plate to cover nutrition standards but throws it away because it lacks appeal.

The purpose of the menu overhaul is to lower the percentage of students whose body mass index targets them as obese. Ms. Easter said he thinks the menu changes are a start, but not a means to the end of the problem.

“Hopefully, we’re partnering with parents to have these products in their home,” she said. “I think now that the students see it every day, it will help the families improve nutritional habits. It can’t be just the school changing or just the parents changing.”

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