Food service staff in the high school Janice Rieniets and Marsha Kraus serve lunch on Friday. There were side options for students who did not prefer to take the sweet potato fries as their vegetable for the meal. (Photo by Kim Brooks)
By Kim Brooks, Express Editor
National School Lunch Week is honored during Oct. 14-18 this year. The idea is to celebrate the healthy lunch choices schools provide for kids all over the nation.
After talking to Pat Kelly, food service director for the Monticello and North Linn school districts, the schools have to follow federal guidelines and regulations, which are monitored by the state, when it comes to what they can and cannot serve students for both lunch and breakfast.
Last year, the Monticello School District had to revise its menus to be in compliance with new regulations set forth by the Federal Healthy Hungry-Free Kids Act, which went into law in 2010. (In an effort to get more information on this law, the Express tried to access its website and was greeted with the following message: “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available. After funding has been restored, please allow some time for this website to become available again.”)
Kelly explained the idea behind the Act and changes to the school’s menu are to increase the amount of fruits, vegetables and whole grains within a meal to ensure age-appropriate calorie intake. The end result: healthier eating options for students.
When coming up with a monthly menu for lunch and breakfast in Monticello schools, Kelly has to follow strict guidelines. Lunches are to be made up of five components: a meat/meat alternative, bread/grains, fruit, vegetable and milk. Students are required to take three of the five components, including a fruit or vegetable.
For breakfast offerings, there are four components: an entrée, which counts as two components, fruit and milk. Students are required to take three of the four components.
Kelly said there always seems to be changes coming down to the system. He has to stay up-to-date on the latest guidelines to comply with the system and receive federal reimbursements.
Aside from the traditional school lunch, the high school offers à la carte items, which also have to fall within certain guidelines.
Kelly said his staff team has to be pretty creative when coming up with the menu every month. He also notes a lot of waste associated with certain food items. Unfortunately, while the students have to take the items, they aren’t required to eat them.
“With the waste, we’re forced to be proactive and figure out what’s being wasted and change it on the menus,” said Kelly.
The middle school also offers à la carte items, but not as many items as the high school.
“We’re a self-sufficient entity,” Kelly said of the school lunch program, which mean, they rely on the reimbursements, as well as à la carte items. Students who choose to go the à la carte route pay separate for those food items versus using their meal account.
“Whether they go à la carte or through the lunch line, they’re still getting a healthy lunch,” noted Kelly.
Not all students, however, are able to eat off the school menu. There are those students with food allergies or special diets like gluten-free, peanut-free and dairy-free that requires a special meal.
“We see a high amount of special diets here,” Kelly said. “It’s a lot to keep track of.”
Despite the additional work, Kelly and his staff make sure to stay on tab with everything. “We’re very proactive,” he said, giving high praise to his staff for their hard work as well. “We all work together on the kids’ special diets and food allergies.”
One of the biggest changes is the addition of whole grain, which Kelly said by the end of the year, the schools will offer 100 percent whole grain items. This is a requirement from the USDA. The breakfast meals will also push the whole grain idea as well.
“Statistics show kids learn better from the grain intake versus protein,” Kelly noted. However, he said it’s important to change a kid’s eating habits early, before they get to high school and start making their own food choices.
The high school also offers a salad bar option, aside from the regular lunch menu.
With the federal government shutdown nearing 15 days and counting, Kelly said they depend on the government for reimbursements. Only time will tell.
For now, Kelly and his staff make sure to attend classes to stay up on the latest changes from the government.
One change he, himself, would like to implement is putting the new lunch program online through the school’s website so parents can keep track of what their kids are eating or buying through the à la carte.
“A lot of schools are already doing this,” said Kelly.
The idea is to make sure parents are enforcing healthy eating as well. If they think their child isn’t eating a proper lunch, parents can block their child from eating off the à la carte.
Eventually, he’d like to allow parents to pay for their kids’ meal programs online as well. “That’s down the line.”