Learning to eat healthy is the new focus of lunch programs in the Iola-Scandinavia School District.
Every student’s lunch tray must now include at least one serving of produce (fruit or vegetables), more whole grains and less sodium.
It is a whole new way of looking at food, noted I-S Food Services Director Mary Jo Gerhardt. All age levels are affected by the changes.
“They’re getting down to real foods instead of just nutrients,” Gerhardt said. “They are trying to teach children to eat by color by choosing fruits and vegetables from all the colors of the rainbow – the darker the color, the better the nutritional value of the fruit or vegetable.”
The new standards were set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and went into effect at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year. These standards are required to be followed by all schools participating in the National School Lunch Program.
The new guidelines focus on right-sized portions, increased servings of fruits and vegetables and more whole grains.
School lunches must now include:
• Larger servings of vegetables and fruits (students must take at least one serving of produce before they sit down with their tray).
• A wider variety of vegetables, including dark green and red/orange vegetables and legumes.
• Fat-free or 1% milk (flavored milk must be fat-free).
• More whole grains.
• Less sodium.
These standards ensure that meals are healthy and well-balanced and provide students all the nutrition they need to succeed at school.
The I-S School District Food Service recently received an additional 6-cent reimbursement per student lunch to help offset the cost of implementing the new nutritional guidelines.
“We have specific amounts and types of vegetables and grains that we have to offer, including additional fruit choices in the high school,” Gerhardt said. “It’s an added expense, especially in Wisconsin and in mid-winter.”
To qualify for additional reimbursement, Gerhardt submitted the necessary documentation to demonstrate compliance with the new nutritional guidelines. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) reviewed and approved the I-S menus and found they were in compliance.
Soon after school started, the USDA relaxed its cap on grains and proteins.
“This allows for increased flexibility in the menu planning and food choices for our students,” Gerhardt said. “However, previous age specific calorie and saturated fat ranges remain in place.”
Education is key to the success of the program, so Gerhardt has taken her strategy to another level by adding an informational column to her menu. This menu and sidebar appears in the monthly Orange & Black and on the school district’s website.
“I try to make it quick and informative,” she said.
Gerhardt also tries to add new vegetables to the menu. This may include using a romaine blend for salads, serving fresh red peppers, black beans, refried beans, fresh tomatoes and fresh spinach.
“Each student is required to have half a cup of fruit or vegetables on their tray,” Gerhardt said. “We try to offer a more accepted vegetable along with a new one. I try to balance off the offerings so there is something they might like.”
How have the students adjusted to the change?
“We still see some waste, but they’re doing pretty well,” Gerhardt said. “Our fresh veggies are starting to be taken more often.”
“Research shows it takes about 10 to 12 times introducing a new food to a child before they will even try it,” she said. “So we don’t give up.”
It has also been helpful that elementary teachers have been offering nutritional snacks in their classrooms. They also are taking time to explain why these foods are being offered.
She said it is important to find the right foods because “it doesn’t pay to have a menu they don’t like.”
Treats like cookies and cake are still allowed on the lunch tray but at controlled levels.
“It’s all about portion and portion control,” Gerhardt said. “We try to teach children that it’s okay to have a treat once in a while – just don’t have it replace good nutritional food.”
In the I-S School District, lunch costs $2.15 daily for students 4K-6 and $2.45 daily for students 7-12. Breakfast costs $1.25 daily at the elementary school.