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Morris Area Elementary School students tried blood oranges as part of “Fear Factor” on Friday, Feb. 8.

District takes creative approach to school lunch changes

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MORRIS -- This week, students at the elementary school and high school played “Fear Factor” at lunch, tasting unusual fruits like kumquats, blood oranges, star fruit and dried apricots.

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Although new federal guidelines for school lunch have limited some familiar foods like large hamburgers and unlimited bread, Morris Area food service staff are working to develop creative methods like “Fear Factor” to get students to try unfamiliar foods and make healthy choices part of their eating routines.

The idea for “Fear Factor” came from Jan Keifer, head cook at Morris Area Elementary School. The goal, said Director of Food Services Jeanine Bowman, is to get students to try something new.

“It's all things that people eat – not weird things – but things that maybe the kids have never seen before,” said Bowman.

Starting this year, school lunches needed to meet additional standards outlined in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, including calorie limits for each age group, larger servings of fruits and vegetables, a variety of different types of vegetables, fat-free or one percent milk, more whole grains and less sodium.

The new standards also initially put maximums on how many servings of proteins and grains could be served each week, although the USDA backed off those requirements slightly in December.

As a result, students have seen smaller portion sizes for items like hamburgers and nachos and food services staff pushing them to take a serving of fruits and vegetables, said Bowman.

The new standards can also be a challenge for small districts, who now need to plan different menus for students in kindergarten through 8th grade, and 9th through 12th grade because the calorie limits are different for each age group, said Bowman.

“They looked at the bigger school, honestly, and didn't at the small districts,” said Bowman. “And there are a lot more small districts.”

Despite the challenges, Bowman and her staff have worked hard to alleviate the frustrations that students have expressed and offer creative food options that still meet the federal standards.

For example, at the beginning of the school year all condiments had to be offered in packets because they need to be included in the calorie count for meals. But counting the packets was time-consuming for staff and frustrating for students, so over time the cafeteria has transitioned back to pumps for condiments and adding other low calorie, low sodium seasoning options, Bowman said.

“The students now know that if they go overboard, it'll end up being back to packets,” said Bowman. “They have a lot more invested in this, so they're really good.”

At the high school, students can still go through the a la carte line for more food if they're still hungry, or take extra servings of fruits and vegetables, said Bowman.

Bowman also hopes that foods that are popular during “Fear Factor” can become part of the regular menu. So far, “weird” fruits that have made it to the rotation include pluots (“dinosaur eggs” – a cross between an apricot and a plum) and grapples (grape flavored apples).

This year, students have sampled different types of hummus and various pickled vegetables and meat. Next month, Bowman plans to serve different types of artisan breads and cheese.

“Things have changed so much this last year, and I think we keep trying to find things that work better for our kids and try to find things that they will like,” said Bowman. “The menu will keep changing.”

However, the school food transition isn't over yet. Next year, the new standards will also apply to the breakfast program, said Bowman, so the district is working this year to make changes to smooth the transition.

And on Feb. 1, the USDA announced that it will see public comment on new standards for all food sold in schools, not just food provided through federal school lunch program.

The “Smart Snacks in School” proposed rule will impact foods that are sold in schools during the school day, not food sold at after school events or other activities, provided in bagged lunches, or treats for special events.

“Parents and teachers work hard to instill healthy eating habits in our kids, and these efforts should be supported when kids walk through the schoolhouse door,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a press release.

“Good nutrition lays the groundwork for good health and academic success,” he continued. “Providing healthy options throughout school cafeterias, vending machines, and snack bars will complement the gains made with the new, healthy standards for school breakfast and lunch so the healthy choice is the easy choice for our kids.”

The text of the proposed rule is available at http://www.fns.usda.gov/cga/020113-snacks.pdf. Once the rule is published in the Federal Register, the public will be able to provide feedback through www.regulations.gov. The USDA will seek public comment on the proposal for 60 days.

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Kim Ukura is the editor of the Morris Sun Tribune. 

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