Packaged tomatoes. Bagged lettuce. A splat of this and that.
The face of school lunches in Bartholomew County is changing under new federal guidelines that call for more fruits and vegetables, reduced calories and sodium and the standardization of low- or nonfat milk.
Students at Bartholomew County’s public and private schools are kicking off the school year with more stringent nutritional options that the federal government hopes will help reduce child obesity rates.
“I always like a challenge,” said Mary Lou Pieper, who heads the fruits and salads station at the 4-year-old Columbus Signature Academy-New Tech public high school.
Nancy Millspaugh, a registered dietitian and food service director with the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., said the school corporation began making nutritional changes three years ago in anticipation of the federal legislation.
She said the school system began increasing whole grains three years ago and fresh fruits and vegetables about two years ago. This school year, the rules are more stringent, with a renewed emphasis on fruits and vegetables, limits on carbohydrates (bread stick, anyone?) and a push for dark green, leafy veggies like kale and spinach.
“I think these changes are a great thing for the kids,” Millspaugh said. “I think menuing will be a challenge, and so will finding some of the products that meet the requirements.
“But it’s all doable.”
Bartholomew Consolidated also benefited from help from Reach Healthy Communities, Millspaugh said. For example, the community initiative provided grant money to purchase a device called a “sectionizer” for each school. Millspaugh said children were found to be less likely to eat whole fruits, but by cutting them into pieces with the “sectionizer” their intake of fruits and vegetables increased by 25 percent.
Reach also provided staffing last year to help the school district perform student surveys and taste-tests. Those results helped the district make choices in what foods to include in the revamped menus.
Cafeterias nationwide must make available five components from all five basic food groups, Millspaugh said. Students must choose foods from at least three of those groups, and one of those has to be a fruit or a vegetable.
The changes actually increase the quantity of food on each plate and improve quality overall. Cafeteria workers at all Bartholomew County school systems have undergone special training to learn how to prepare the more nutritious meals and to improve their speed, officials said.
Prices for now will remain the same locally as they were with the adoption last year of school lunch prices for the 2012-13 school year. Federal officials have predicted that most schools would have to increase their school lunch prices by 30 cents.
Tracy Piehl, a cook who heads New Tech’s cafeteria, said the switch to dark green, leafy vegetables is one of the biggest adjustments. She predicted it would take students a while to adjust but that they would get used to it.
“We can recommend certain things, and the kids can always come back if they don’t like it and we’ll give them something else,” she said.
Lisa Garrison, food service director at the Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp., said her school system’s two schools, Hope Elementary School and Hauser Sr./Jr. High School, are ready to go with their menus, which will include a side salad daily.
Like the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. kitchen crews, Garrison said the Flat Rock-Hawcreek crews will continue to include education in the plan to make the nutritional changes more palatable to children raised on chips and soft drinks.
The school corporation hosted a taste-test competition for younger students last year, she said, and have been looking for ways to educate students who bring their own lunches.