Healthier lunches for school kids

HANCOCK – When Renee Salani took over as food service director at Hancock Public Schools 10 years ago, she knew the federal government was going to alter its nutritional requirements for those schools using the National School Lunch Program, so she got to work on the school’s lunch menu.

“At that time, I started making changes along the way,” she said.

She started reducing the number of fatty foods, including butter and margarine, and she introduced low-calorie salad dressing, Salani said.

Salani said she also introduced yogurts, whole wheat bread and more salads, which at first didn’t go over too well with the students.

“It was a big change back then,” she said. “It’s been a struggle.”

Now, Salani said she serves a wide variety of vegetables, some of them fresh, such as steamed asparagus. She also offers a tuber called jicama, which, because of its sweetness, appeals to some students.

“The little kids really like it,” she said.

Salani said she stopped using canned vegetables because of the amount of sodium in them. She now uses frozen vegetables and some frozen fruits, such as strawberries. She’ll soon be adding frozen blueberries and cherries.

“I do use a mixed berry compote,” she said.

Last school year, Salani said she asked Mark Pittillo, Portage Health director of food services, to help design a menu for the school lunch program. At the hospital, Pittillo has created a menu in line with the Michigan Hospital Association program called Healthy Food Hospitals, which is an initiative to serve meals with fresh fruits and vegetables, low fat and low sugar meals, with as much locally-grown products as possible.

“We’re trying to eventually get our own garden going,” she said.

Soon after the change to the new lunch menus was made in accordance with federal requirements, Salani said some parents complained because their children wouldn’t eat the new food offerings. They said they’d rather have their children eat the high fat, high sodium foods then not eat at all.

However, Salani said she thinks most students are OK with the new menus, now. The elementary and high school students took to it fairly quickly, but the middle school students are less accepting.

“They’re a hard market to target,” she said.

Shelby Turnquist, head cook for Houghton-Portage Township School District, said she also started preparing students for the changes in the National School Lunch Program nutritional requirements by making changes in the schools’ menu about three years ago.

“We were already implementing some of them so it wasn’t a shock to our students,” she said. “We didn’t know to what extent (the changes would be).”

Turnquist said she started making small changes, such as offering romaine lettuce and raw spinach instead of iceberg lettuce. Early on she was offering a strawberry and spinach salad with poppy seed dressing, Turnquist said.

“Our kids are very adventurous,” she said. “They take chances.”

Before the nutritional mandates went into effect, Turnquist said she started serving whole wheat bread and muffins, and that has since expanded close to the required 100 percent whole grains.

“Ninety-nine percent of my items are whole grain,” she said.

The whole grains include pasta products, Turnquist said.

She serves fresh vegetables and fruits everyday, Turnquist said. The elementary school students get one or two fresh fruits daily, and the high school students get two or more every day.

“It’s all about learning what the students like,” she said.

Although not all the fresh fruits and vegetables she serves are local, Turnquist said she’s working with Pittillo and local growers to get more local fresh fruits and vegetables onto the menu. If she can’t use local growers, she tries to keep the purchases within the state.

“I do try to use as many Michigan products as I can,” she said.

Turnquist said right from the start of the changes to a healthier school lunch menu, there has been little resistance either from students or their parents.

“Our parents are very good backers of our program,” she said.

Sara Salo, health education coordinator with the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department, said in 2012, the federal Department of Agriculture mandated all schools taking part in the National School Lunch Program must offer fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk, as well as reduce the amount of processed salt, saturated fat and trans fat in the food offered to children.

“Any school that participates in the National School Lunch Program has to follow their guidelines,” she said.

However, Salo said the regulations aren’t specific about the kinds of fruits and vegetables schools must serve.

“Those fruits and vegetables don’t have to be fresh,” she said.

Although fruits and vegetables can be canned, Salo said they can’t be packed in corn syrup.

Salo said the health department works with the local school districts regarding proper nutrition through its CATCH UP – or Coordinated Approach to Child Health in the Upper Peninsula – program, which is designed to teach kindergarten through fifth grade children how to eat healthy and to exercise regularly.

“Healthy school food is part of a larger strategy to support healthy kids,” she said.

Salo said research indicates children who eat healthy do better in school and have fewer behavioral problems.

As part of the CATCH program, Salo said she gives presentations at schools about where food comes from and how it can affect the mind and body. The children seem to be impressed with what she tells them.

“The kids are very engaged,” she said. “They ask a lot of questions.”

During her presentations at schools, Salo said she talks about the Go, Slow and Whoa foods. The Go foods are good to eat anytime. The Slow foods are OK to eat occasionally. The Whoa foods are least healthy, and should be eaten rarely, if at all.

Salo said her focus now is on elementary school children with the intent of making healthy eating a permanent part of their lives.

“It’s important to continue the healthy food education and make it part of the culture of the school,” she said.