Schools seeing flexibility in lunch offerings

Cary Ashby • Feb 3, 2018 at 10:00 PM

The USDA Food and Nutrition Service has given school districts more flexibility in milk, whole grains and sodium requirements.

Many local superintendents and food service directors are choosing to see this as a recommendation instead of a requirement, so they are keeping the status quo while still offering that flexibility.

“We have not made any changes to our lunch menus. Our lunch numbers are good and we have not deviated from the menus that were put out at the beginning of the year,” said Ralph Moore, Monroeville Local Schools superintendent.

Western Reserve Local Schools Superintendent Rodge Wilson said the changes for healthier lunches have been gradual and the biggest difference started under initiatives by Michelle Obama when she was the First Lady.

“This year was a big change,” added Wilson, who oversees food service for Western. “If you can comply, you get an extra six cents per reimbursable lunch. … Every little bit counts.”

Western offers three or four different lunches every day on a five-week cycle.

“It has been very successful,” Wilson said.

Also, Western — as schools are required to do — offers options for students with food allergies, including lactose and gluten-free restrictions.

“They are actually flagged in the system,” Wilson said. “We the school will not sell foods to which they are allergic.”

Norwalk City Schools offers 1-percent milk and some grains that aren’t whole grains.

“Currently we offer skim-flavored milk,” said Kelly Ross, director of support services, who has overseen food service for many years. “Currently we only offer whole grains (and we need to) continue to monitor sodium levels in menu planning.”

New London Local Schools offers 1-percent milk instead of all fat-free.

“The sodium level is supposed to go up and down, but they are trying to keep it the same,” said Sam Matthews, food service director. “They basically are trying to level it to basically keep going down.”

One of the challenges, she said, in making changes to choices in the food menu is there is a time delay with when the food vendors can comply or what those vendors have available and/or are offering.

Instead of everything being grain, districts can request waivers in order to offer more options. An example would be New London using regular noodles for macaroni and cheese instead of whole-grain noodles.

“They are gummy and nasty,” Matthews said. “As soon as the waivers came out, I applied for it and they gave it to me.”

Edison Local Schools has used the grain waiver for five years, said food service director Shelly Geason.

For a student with celiac disease, which requires gluten-free foods, Geason said she buys gluten-free breads and bagels and a pizza with cauliflower crust from Gorton Food Service.

“She really likes it,” Geason added, referring to the pizza. “It’s a rule you have to reasonably accomodate any student (with food allergies).” 

Plymouth-Shiloh Local Schools offers 1-percent white, fat-free chocolate, skim and chocolate milk. Fat-free strawberry milk is an option only at the high school. Food service director Jenny Blankenship said it’s not offered at the elementary school, because it would be too many choices for the students.

When the whole grain regulations first came out, “those were a lot of taste changes for the kids,” she said, and while the students are getting used to it, making another change again now might be a problem.

“The changes have gone through smoothly for us,” Blankenship added.

Geason, at Edison, agreed and said she “we haven’t had any issues — knock on wood.” As other food service directors told the Reflector, she said there have been so many changes “back and forth” it doesn’t make any sense to jump on board completely now. 

Basically, Blankenship said Plymouth-Shiloh will keep its food choices the same for now — as long as they stay within regulations — and until the district is told it must absolutely make changes.

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