Serving up healthy meals

Serving up healthy meals
Posted on 02/05/2019
“Did you hear?” or “Well, I heard…” School meals are often a topic of conversation. We are thankful for those who support our program, but there has certainly been a lot of talk about school food and government regulations over the last few years. We follow a seemingly endless list of rules. This is true in school food just like most other professions. However, when the work you do depends on government funding, these rules are even more prevalent. Using the words regulation or compliance has such a negative connotation. We would prefer to just say that our goal is to serve healthy and enjoyable meals to as many students as we can. But, regulations and compliance are very real and simply must be part of the conversation.  

Sometimes a menu item just doesn’t work. Here at Mexico School District, we try to vary the menus with as many different items as we can which means we try new things from time to time. Sometimes those things turn out to be a huge hit, and sometimes we strike out completely. When we strike out, we look at the reasons: Was it cooked correctly? Was it seasoned well? Was it accepted at one grade level more than another? Was it just not something the majority likes? If it a quality issue, we can work on that and try again. Otherwise, we accept the loss and choose to not have that item on the menu again.

The truth is it is hard, very hard, to come up with entrees and sides that are appealing to the majority of kids. But, we do have a lot of hits such as Taco Tuesday. On Tuesdays, we rotate different “TexMex” items such as nachos, hard shell tacos, soft tacos, burritos, quesadillas, etc. Thursdays are usually “Poultry” day. Breaded chicken patties are high on the list of favorite items that we serve. Burgers and “Fry-day” come to be expected each week. A couple weeks ago we even served corn dogs on Friday but were questioned by students on why there were no burgers!

How do we come up with the menu items? There are several variables taken into consideration, but most menu creation comes from student requests, cost, and compliance. Let’s talk about compliance, shall we? “Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010” (HHFKA) - most people have no idea what that is. It was an act of Congress that strengthened the regulations for school nutrition programs. HHFKA came about due to a nationwide concern with childhood obesity along with assuring the availability of healthy meals for school kids; it set limits to sugars, sodium, calories and fat in school meals, and set minimum serving size requirements in each nutrition category. The act also put restrictions on the kind of grains offered. School districts that participate in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program are required to follow these regulations.  Schools were restricted to offer only whole grain rich bread items. For school year 2018-19, we were able to apply for and were granted a waiver on the whole grain rule. We chose the whole grain items for the waiver that were most disliked by students: pasta, tortilla wraps, and crackers. This means that during the current school year, we are allowed to serve these items made with enriched flour rather than whole wheat. This has been very well accepted by students. Starting in school year 2019-20, a waiver is no longer going to be needed because the USDA will allow half of the grains offered be whole grain rich instead of the current rule that all grains offered must be whole grain rich. This will help immensely when creating menus that are accepted by more students.  This change in regulations has come after years of school food service workers and directors across the country contacting their representatives and USDA pleading for some relief in these regulations. The requests were being made on the basis that we all know that if the food ends up in the trash, it is not doing anyone any good.

“How can the menus be the same at the high school as they are at the elementary school? High school kids need more to eat than elementary.” Yes, frequently the main menu is the same at all grade levels, but the serving sizes are not the same. Having the same menu helps the staff with ordering, inventory, and production. However, there is a minimum on calories, protein, fruit, grain, and vegetable serving sizes at each grade level. The only thing that is the same serving size is milk, which is one cup at all grades. The grain, meat, and fruit minimum serving size requirement at the high school level is double what it is at the elementary level. The minimum vegetable serving at elementary level is ¾ cup at lunch and one cup at the high school. However, at the high school and middle school the students serve themselves the vegetables and fruits, and they are allowed to take more than the minimum serving if they want it. We only ask that they not take more than they will eat as to not waste.  

The whys and wherefores of menu development can go on and on and definitely more than can be discussed in a short article. The bottom line is we really just want to work hard to accomplish that goal of serving healthy and enjoyable meals to as many students as we can. The food service director and the kitchen staff all want to encourage anyone wanting more detailed information or have specific questions or concerns to please contact Joyce Fenner, Food Service Director at 573-581-3773 ext 2406.  
The USDA and Mexico Public Schools are equal opportunity providers.