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More veggies, fruits in school lunch menus

by: Photo by Susan Matheny - Examples of the new school lunch offerings with whole grain and more fruits and veggies.


   Red bell pepper strips, carrots and cauliflower with cucumber dip for breakfast?
   That's one of the choices students in the 509-J School District will be offered under the new federal requirements for school meals, which seek to boost the amount of fruits and vegetables kids eat, lower the amount of fat and salt consumed, and control portion sizes.
   In order to receive reimbursement for free and reduced meals, school cafeterias must meet strict federal guidelines.
   This has a big impact on the food service budget, since a full elementary lunch costs $2, while (for low-income students) a reduced-price lunch is 40 cents, and other lunches are free. All elementary students receive a free breakfast under the Breakfast in the Classroom program.
   Currently, 86 percent of the 509-J District's meals fall in the free and reduced category.
   A sample breakfast was served to school board members following their Aug. 14 meeting, featuring choices of veggies and cucumber dip, a tasty black bean salad, yogurt parfaits with granola and strawberries, whole grain French toast with sugar-free syrup, sausage links, orange juice and milk.
   "We can't use mayonnaise or ranch dressing any more, because that would put us over the fat content, so I came up with the cucumber dip," said food services supervisor Patti Jobe.
   She also mentioned students can still have chocolate milk, only it has to be fat-free. Otherwise, 1 percent or skim milk is now being served.
   Starting this school year, school lunches must:
   .Include a 1/2 cup of fruit or vegetables.
   . Offer a wider variety of vegetables, including dark green, red/orange, and legumes.
   . Limit the amount of meat or meat alternatives (like cheese and yogurt) and grains offered. Half of the grains must be whole grain.
   . Keep serving sizes within specific ranges for each age group (grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12).
   . Separate calorie limits for each age group.
   . Include only fat-free or 1 percent milk. Flavored milk must be fat-free (but still has a high sugar content).
   . Use less sodium.
   Schools buy food in bulk and freeze meat and other items. As a result, 509-J now has food items that no longer fit the new guidelines.
   To help school districts out, Jobe said, "We have the month of September to use up old food that doesn't meet the requirements."
   Thick packets of information outline foods that are and are not acceptable. Sugared frozen fruits may not be used, and canned fruit must be canned in juice or light syrup.
   For K-8 students, 3 3/4 cups of vegetables weekly, in a variety of subgroups must be offered.
   Included are dark green (bok choy, kale, broccoli, spinach or romaine lettuce), red/orange (carrots, acorn squash, sweet potatoes, red bell peppers, tomatoes), beans/legumes (black, kidney, garbanzo, and pinto beans, split peas), starchy (corn, potatoes, green peas), and other veggies to meet the serving amount like green beans, beets, and zucchini.
   "The federal government has been stepping up to the plate with garbanzos, beans and things," Jobe said, referring to commodity foods provided.
   All the new food requirements and portion measurements mean a lot more calculating and less leeway for menu planning. "We've gone from a pen to being put in a squeeze chute," Jobe joked about the strict guidelines.
   But the benefits of the new menus to students are many, the booklets note, and may help combat the current nationwide child obesity epidemic.
   "Developing healthy eating habits as a child may influence eating habits as an adult," states information from the Oregon Department of Education Child Nutrition Program.