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Districts proactive in meeting new school lunch standards

Prep server cashier MariAcevedo checks line fruits vegetables available for students during lunch Lake In The Hills Elementary School. 

Prep server and cashier Maria Acevedo checks the line of fruits and vegetables available for students during lunch at Lake In The Hills Elementary School. February 2, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 3, 2012 10:15AM

LAKE IN THE HILLS — Ten-year-old Denise Bush said the chicken patty sandwich is “mostly my favorite” school lunch.

“My mom cooks it, and it’s really good,” she said.

Luckily for the pigtailed fourth-grader, that was one of the items on the menu Thursday in the Cool Caf at Lake in the Hills Elementary School, 519 Willow St.

And while a chicken patty sandwich might sound unhealthy, the chicken is oven-baked, not deep-fried, with whole wheat breading, according to Scott Rodgers, general manager of Aramark, School District 300’s food service provider. It’s also served on a whole wheat bun, not white bread, he added.

Those are part of the changes the district made to its school lunch menus at the end of the 2009-10 school year.

They’re also part of the changes coming to lunchrooms across the country, thanks to new school lunch standards approved late last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat, and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet,” First Lady Michelle Obama said in a written statement forwarded by the USDA.

“And when we’re putting in all that effort, the last thing we want is for our hard work to be undone each day in the school cafeteria. When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home. We want the food they get at school to be the same kind of food we would serve at our own kitchen tables.”

The first lady announced the new meal requirements a couple weeks ago during a lunchtime visit to an elementary school in Alexandria, Va., with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The changes are the first time those standards have been modified in more than 15 years and will be phased in over three years, starting in the 2012-13 school year, according to the USDA. All are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was championed by the first lady as part of her Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity and signed into law in 2010 by President Barack Obama.

Some of those changes include offering students both fruits and vegetables every day of the week and only fat-free or low-fat milk. They also include increasing whole-grain-rich foods; reducing saturated fat, trans fat and sodium; and limiting calories and portion sizes based on the age of students.

Implementing the new standards is expected to cost $3.2 billion over the next five years, the USDA said.

With them also will come the first funding increase for school lunches in 30 years — an additional 6 cents per meal, tied to a school’s performance serving the improved meals. They also accompany standards for food and beverages sold in vending machines on school campuses and pricing for school lunches, as well as training and technical assistance to help schools meet the requirements.

Making change

Both District 300 and Elgin School District U46 are analyzing those changes.

But, Rodgers said, District 300 already has made a lot of changes.

“I think we’ll be a lot closer than a lot of others will be to meeting the new standards,” he said.

Already, the Carpentersville-area district offers students choices of both fruits and vegetables with each entrée. It serves whole-wheat and multigrain breads, lowfat cheeses and lowfat and skim milk, he said.

Those menu changes — as well as school visits and video series by self-proclaimed “rockstar nutritionist” Jill Jayne — helped all 16 elementary schools in the district meet the HealthierUS School Challenge last school year, also part of Let’s Move! And that sent District 300 officials this summer to the White House for recognition.

U46 also has been proactive, according to Claudie Phillips, director of food and nutrition in the Elgin school district. Like District 300, all its breads are whole-wheat, and it introduced skim chocolate milk this school year, Phillips said.

The district also serves salad every day in its middle and high schools and once a week in its elementary schools. Phillips said she wants to serve salad more often in elementary schools next year.

Those changes helped two U46 schools — Eastview Middle in Bartlett and Parkwood Elementary in Hanover Park — become the only Illinois schools this school year to meet the requirements of the Fuel Up to Play 60 campaign, sponsored by the Midwest Dairy Council and the National Football League, according to the district.

That campaign encourages students to help create more options for being physically active and eating more healthy foods in their schools.

“Next year, there’s going to have to be a little more, but over the last couple of years we’ve already begin making those changes,” Phillips said.

Reacting to change

Lake in the Hills Elementary fourth-grader Jenna Gottfried said she’s noticed the changes in the lunchroom “a little bit.”

For one, the 10-year-old said, “They’re not serving as much pudding as they did. And every once in a while they used to serve ice cream, and there’s no more ice cream.”

Jenna likes the pineapple the school’s Cool Caf serves, and she knows eating healthy is important to stay in shape so she can continue to do cheerleading and gymnastics, she said.

But, she added, “The ice cream — I would kind of say I miss it.”

Rodgers said Aramark got some complaints from parents when lunchrooms switched to whole-grain-breaded chicken nuggets. Those parents said that the nuggets were inferior and that students didn’t like them, he said. They actually are a “superior” product, he said.

High school students also were very vocal when the food service provider switched to whole grain pizza crust, Rodgers said. Pizza sales definitely dropped.

Phillips said U46 has gotten students to eat new foods like refried beans — considered a vegetable — by serving them as part of a themed menu. U46’s “South of the Border” menu pairs the refried beans with tacos, she said.

“It’s difficult to convert, but once they understand why, our hope is that they build those lifelong habits,” Rodgers said.

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