21st century lunches not what parents might remember

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Sunday, March 6, 2011
— I had hot lunch at the Marshall Middle School cafeteria recently.

My choices for main dishes included a bacon-lettuce-tomato wrap, macaroni and cheese, and something called a Monte Cristo.

The Monte Cristo sandwich is a student favorite, the lunch ladies told me. It looked good. I was hungry. I picked up the tongs and placed it on my tray.

I also made a nice salad for myself, which included—surprisingly—leafy greens, although iceberg lettuce also was a choice.

Marshall Principal Synthia Taylor had arranged three lunch guests for me: sixth-grader Anthony Hess, seventh-grader Jacob Schmidt and eighth-grader David Zoellner.

I interviewed the boys as I ate. The Monte Cristo was cheese and ham sandwiched between two slices of french toast. Just by the heft, I knew it packed quite a punch.

Anthony had eaten a Monte Cristo and milk that day. He didn’t take any of the variety of fruits and vegetables that he also could have gotten for the same price. He had a good breakfast and didn’t think he’d be hungry enough to eat everything he could have gotten, he said.

Jacob had a Monte Cristo, juice, salad, ice cream and milk.

Every meal comes with milk.

David had a Monte Cristo, yogurt, ice cream, milk and fruit cup.

The boys could have eaten more fruits and vegetables for the same price, but they chose not to. As the government increases health requirements for school lunches, this is where the system breaks down: You can’t force kids to eat what they won’t eat.

But you can offer more healthful meals. And the meals of today are much more healthful than what parents might remember.

Deb Goad, who manages the school district’s lunch program and is a school nutritional specialist, has been at this for 21 years. In the beginning, she recalled, little thought went into the fat, carbohydrates, sugar, fiber or sodium in a meal.

“Desserts were generously offered by our cooks,” Goad recalled.

Food standards have changed a lot over the past six years, and more changes are in the works, Goad noted.

The district around 2005 started offering more fresh fruits and vegetables and more low-fat alternatives to the foods kids love, including the whole-grain-crust pizza. But prices skyrocketed the next year, Goad said. The district had to cut back.

Now, for example, there is one fresh and two canned fruits at each meal. Before, it was two fresh and two canned fruits. And fresh vegetables are no longer on the menu every day.

But desserts are rare, and when there are sweets, they’re reduced-sugar and in small portions.

The district is working to offer half of all the grain products made with whole grains, but manufacturers are not there yet, Goad said.

The bread is usually “white whole wheat,” which is said to be as good as whole wheat, but kids eat it more readily.

“It’s sometimes a struggle to get kids to eat a bread that is brown,” Goad said.

Whole-grain pasta is standard, and the kids don’t seem to notice, Goad said. There are even whole-grain toaster pastries.

Chips are reduced-fat and in small bags. Salad dressings are low fat or fat free. Packaged snack cakes such as Little Debbie are gone.

Nothing has been fried since around the turn of the century, Goad said.

A new federal law will require a lot of what Janesville is already doing, but it will go further, Goad said.

For example, the new standards are expected to allow hamburgers and pizza but require that they include leaner meat or whole-wheat crust. More fresh fruits and vegetables will be required, and those are costly, Goad noted. She’s not sure whether the new law will strain the budget because the new standards have not yet been published.

If the district meets the standards, it will get an extra 6 cents per meal from the federal government. The National Association of School Boards has complained that the extra 6 cents is not enough to cover meal costs.

All the meals are federally subsidized. The lunch program uses local tax dollars only if it goes into the red, which it hasn’t for quite a few years.

Goad said the district already has cut back on labor costs. Most workers—75 of them—are part-time with no benefits. Only Goad, an assistant and the kitchen managers are full-time.

On the positive side, some food prices are coming down. A whole-grain product in 2005 cost twice that of a non-whole grain product, Goad said. Now, the cost is just 50 percent higher.

The new law would require less candy and fewer high-calorie drinks in vending machines. Janesville cafeteria vending machines do better than that, although Goad said she couldn’t vouch for machines that might be in locker rooms or teachers lounges.

Goad said she agrees with most of the changes, adding: “The hard part is the paperwork.”

The three middle school students said they like what they get for lunch, generally.

“It’s really good,” David said.

“It’s way better than at elementary school,” said Anthony.

Jacob agreed, saying he found vegetables dried out at elementary schools, and the grilled cheese sandwiches were often burned.

The boys said they normally could find something they like among the lunch choices. They’d like it if the there was more room to load their trays among the crush of students, but that’s about it.

And the kids seemed aware that the quality of food is important.

Jacob said he sees students eating unhealthily, despite the choices. He said some kids just grab a couple of Gushers, a fruity snack.

“They’re just eating sugar,” he said.

The boys said they think about nutrition.

Jacob said he eats fruit or a salad most days and tries to stay away from sugary snacks.

The boys said they get their nutrition consciousness from their parents and from health or family-and-consumer-education classes.

Sixth-grader Makenzie Dewar, who was not part of the original conversation, was eager to share her opinion after the boys left, as I was trying to down the rest of my Monte Cristo.

Makenzie said she finds the Monte Cristos greasy.

“Some of it is straight-up disgusting,” Makenzie said. “And the lettuce tastes like plastic.”

I rather liked my lettuce, but Makenzie was adamant.

“Usually, I just drink this grape juice and the fruit—the fruit is good,” she said.

When pressed, however, Makenzie said of the food, “sometimes it’s really good.”

The Monte Cristo, for all its faults—including more calories than a Burger King Whopper—was filling. So filling, in fact, that I couldn’t finish it.

But never fear, kids aren’t being fed such gut-busters on a regular basis. Marshall kitchen manager Barb Roherty said Monte Cristos are served only once a month.

Last updated: 4:48 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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