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Choices is 'most important thing' for school lunches

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Feeding a school full of children is no simple task, especially when the meals must include healthy choices.

"With all of the new USDA regulations on school meals, the most important thing for districts to remember is to offer choices for students," said Pat Powers, director of food service for McLean County Unit 5.

Powers spoke as a mentor to food service workers from districts across the state at a workshop this week in Champaign. Mentors and participants worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to discuss healthy meal ideas and presentation tips.

The group focused on menu planning and how to increase participation. The more students who participate in lunch, the more reimbursement schools receive.

Food service workers at Unit 5, who serve more than 7,000 meals daily, found participation rises when students can pick and choose, said Powers.


New menu rules went into effect in 2012, but they are being phased in, explained Katie Wilson, USDA deputy under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, who took part in the workshop. The rules call for more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and less sodium.

She has heard complaints that the emphasis on "healthy choices" leads to waste when children don't eat what they are served. But Wilson, who spent 23 years as a food services director or assistant in Wisconsin school districts, said, "Food was wasted way back before these rules."

Today's children are "consumer savvy" and make more family meal decisions, Wilson said.

How food is presented and served can influence a child's choice.

"Display is important because we also eat with our eyes," said Char Formella, food services manager at Stevenson Elementary School.

When ranch dressing packets were placed next to vegetable servings in lunch rooms, kids snatched the veggies up immediately, said Formella who participated in the workshop as a District 87 representative.

Wilson said children might pass up a whole apple on their tray, but if it's served in slices, "kids gobble them up."

The Smarter Lunchroom Movement, which focuses on lunchroom atmosphere and food presentation, was introduced to workshop participants.


"Smarter Lunchroom uses the same ideas as grocery stores when it comes to arrangement and food presentation," said Powers. "It's something we would be interested in rolling out for local districts in the future."

Another challenge discussed was incorporating whole grains into meals. Formella said District 87 schools, which serve an average of 5,200 meals a day, introduced whole grains gradually.

"Everything is made with whole grain now and the kids love it," said Formella.

Schools are changing everything from pizza crust to the breading on chicken nuggets and corn dogs to a whole grain flour.

The next big step for most schools is reducing sodium.

"At Unit 5, we came up with a low-sodium spice mixture in a shaker so students can spice up their meals if they find something too bland," Powers said.

Wilson considers food served in school to be part of a child's education.

"This is a lifelong skill — putting a menu together and making healthy choices," Wilson said.

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