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In wake of new federal guidelines, schools try to get creative to get kids to eat their vegetables

Suasdey Pheats green beans vegetable month during lunch Rollins Elementary Friday April 12 2013. Schools vendors are working closely introduce

Suasdey Pha eats green beans, the vegetable of the month, during lunch at Rollins Elementary on Friday, April 12, 2013. Schools and vendors are working closely to introduce different vegetables to students in an effort to instill healthy eating habits. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 25, 2013 6:06AM


More bitter than carrots, with less crunch than romaine lettuce, the vegetable’s only ally is an 84-year-old pipe-smoking Sailor Man who has long lost his cultural cache with kids.

It’s no surprise that the leafy green, freshly arrived at Rollins Elementary School in Aurora and packed with vitamins A, C, E, K, folate, iron, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids, sits on the veggie counter, mostly untouched.

“Spinach is not their favorite,” said Lori McMahon, general manager with Sodexo, which provides food service at Rollins.

Around McMahon, about 170 students, mostly first- and second-graders, quickly filed through the lunch line recently, past this year’s new addition, a garden bar, which on this particular day included oranges, peaches, carrots, bags of salad, and fresh baby spinach.

“At the high school, when we had our future chef competition, two out of the six salads that won had a spinach base, and the kids loved them,” said McMahon. “Of course, they had raspberry vinaigrettes and things to jazz them up.”

The garden bar, the spinach, even the future chef salad-making competition, are part of a nationwide trend prompted by changes to the USDA’s National School Lunch Program and a White House campaign against childhood obesity.

The changes require more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, beans at least once a week, and limits on certain kinds of food, like starches and whole milk.

But the mandate for a healthier school lunch has been a contentious one for many schools, as administrators, nutrition experts and government agents have argued loudly over the new standards, whether they are any healthier, and whether students will ultimately eat their veggies.

Will they eat it?

At Rollins Elementary, the occasional student tries to sneak by the lunch line sans apple or carrots, but most students said they like having healthier options.

Several lunch trays went into the garbage with a pile of untouched green beans, but several others were licked clean, giving McMahon hope.

“You just have to keep introducing them to things over and over,” she said. “Eventually, we hope they’ll try it.”

But tallies from school districts around the Fox Valley show that fewer students are trying the new offerings.

At Indian Prairie schools, breakfast and lunch participation has fallen about 4.4 percent since the 2011-12 school year, according to Chartwell’s, the district’s food service provider.

According to many districts, students are increasingly brown-bagging it, though that may also be in part because of increases in school lunch prices mandated by the USDA this year. From October to January this year, Chartwell’s served 35,878 more free lunches than last year, as the number of students eligible for free lunches has increased. But the company served 58,681 fewer full-price meals over the same period.

Still, some hard-to-impress high school students said they appreciate healthier lunch options.

“They just came out with this chef salad, and I love it,” said junior Denise Martinez. Her friend, Cecilia Munez, had eaten all but the crust of a basic-looking ham and cheese sandwich. Both had a piece of fruit and cup of juice on the side.

“But the food they make here needs more flavor, especially when they make Italian food,” Martinez said.

New foods

Seasoning has been a challenge, said food service providers. Additions like butter and salt are prohibited.

“The things we worry about most are the sodium restrictions coming over the next five years,” said Aramark General Manager Linda Porth, who oversees lunch programs at Oswego, Batavia and Plano schools. “Things will taste completely different on the palette. You can add oregano and other spices, but their palettes won’t be used to that when they eat the (salted) food at home and then come here.”

For solutions to everything from salt restrictions to requirements for whole grains and off-beat vegetables, most food service providers said they are turning to food manufacturers.

“One of the new requirements is that half of grains need to be whole grains, but if you give kids too much whole grain at once, they’re going to reject it,” said McMahon.

The answer, for now, has been newly engineered 51 percent whole grain products, like buns, bread, rolls and crusts.

“So on pizza day, the crust is 51 percent whole grain, with 2 ounces of low-fat cheese,” McMahon said. “It looks like the old lunch, but what’s inside is totally different.”

At Oswego, Batavia and Plano schools, students now drink dragon fruit punch, a juice designed to meet the tricky new dark-orange vegetable requirement — its main ingredient is sweet potato.

Cooks are also challenged to create new meals with what they’re given.

Kathy Carter, who manages food service at West Aurora, launched a new “El Diablo” burger at West High recently, with jalapeno relish and low-fat pepperjack cheese to entice students — jalapenos have become Carter’s secret weapon for flavoring food with less salt.

“I saw something like it on ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,’” Carter said, referring to the popular Food Network show. “Any ideas, we take them. We will take the recipe and make it fit the guidelines.”

A kale salad recipe, tossed with cucumbers and honey mustard dressing, was surprisingly popular, and has become a staple.

But other staples at the West High cafeteria include Pop Tarts, Cheetos and brownies, items offered at the end of the lunch line a la carte — they don’t count towards a school’s reimbursements, and students have to pay more for them.

“Especially for the older students, it’s really about encouraging them to make healthy choices but also letting them make the choice,” Carter said.

A mixed bag

What ultimately ends up on the table still differs from district to district, however.

Recently, East Aurora’s elementary students were served chicken tenders, a chicken caesar salad, peanut-free sunbutter and jelly sandwiches, graham crackers and pinto beans, plus whatever they wanted from the garden bar.

But in Naperville 203, which also contracts with Sodexo, students had several more options. In addition to the garden bar, they were served turkey hot dogs, nachos grande, an all-American sub, a chef salad and a blueberry muffin. The Naperville menu also exhorts its vegetarian alternative, offered daily, and gluten-free substitutions.

Food service providers said that the quality of the food at each district often comes down to the bidding process.

“When the contract goes out to bid, they’re very specific about the number of entrees they want served,” Porth said. “So in our elementary schools, there are four entrees a day because that’s what they dictated. The districts really need to be very specific.”

Otherwise, Porth said, as food service providers attempt to undercut the competition and come in with the lowest bids, food quality and choices suffer.

“But the meals all still fit the guidelines,” she said.

Guidelines that have ultimately been a mixed bag, despite their good nutritional sense.

“It’s exciting and aggravating and frustrating,” Porth said. “And good for kids and bad for kids, all in the same breath.”

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