Secondary Story

The Lunchroom Revolution

By Renee Wahlen Tillema

They say that you are what you eat and with that in mind, the Food Service Director in the Columbus School District is working to provide healthy, nutritionally smart foods for the students.

Brenda Maier, who has been in the business of feeding schoolchildren for the last 17 years, has witnessed many changes in the school lunch programs. She is part of a pilot program that is implementing many changes to the school meal pattern that will be introduced on a larger scale in the summer of 2013.

“There are always changes going on that you need to be ready for,” Brenda said. “You can’t just think it’s going to stay the same. One of the changes we did this year was apply for a grant for a breakfast pilot for the new regulations coming out.”

The Columbus School District received half the grant, which led to adding more whole grains and fresh fruits to the menu, and the elimination of the meat/meat-alternatives. Brenda explained that her kitchen at the Columbus Middle School is responsible for producing 700 lunches and 100 breakfasts each school day. District-wide, including the high school, they supply 900 lunches and 130 breakfasts daily to hungry students.

“We have three different student groups that we have to write menus for,” Brenda said. “We look at requirements for the grade groupings of kindergarten through fifth grade, sixth through eighth grade and ninth through twelfth grade. Each group has certain criteria that we have to follow. The calories will be different and there are minimum and maximum calories for each group that we are not allowed to go above or below.”

The grant pilot program was started at the Columbus elementary and middle schools and Brenda reported that the students were very open to the changes. The new breakfast pattern saw many changes from items such as omelets, sausage and bacon, to whole grains and fruits.

“Not one child complained,” Brenda said. “They were so happy to get up there and have choices. We set out different types of cereals, they were all the whole grains and we had ordered in the low sugar and low sodium items when available. Not all of the manufacturers are on board yet, but they are getting there. I was really surprised, the kids didn’t ask for the other foods, they ate this and they actually had some extra time to talk and eat in the morning.”

Breakfast in the schools is a newer concept. It was started in Columbus through a grant from the Department of Public Instruction and is in place because not all children get a breakfast before heading off to school. The goal of the breakfast program is to make sure everyone has a healthy meal in the morning.

“All kids are different shapes and different sizes, they all need different nutrients,” Brenda said. “We do have a program for students with special dietary requirements. I meet with the parents at the beginning of the school year and we’ll talk about what their child needs – it might be a peanut allergy or lactose intolerant. We send home a menu and the parents check off what they can’t eat. So the kids that do need extra attention get it and it makes me happy.”

Current data states that one-third of children in the U.S. are obese, while another one-third of the kids go hungry. Brenda said the goal is to balance that out, but it will take a group effort.

“The only way we can do it is with help from parents and grandparents,” she said. “We can’t do it all ourselves as a school district. It’s a good starting place, we are not only cooking for the kids, we are teaching them on a daily basis – what is good for you, what is good for your body.”

Brenda feels the salad bar option has been a positive addition, every school has a salad bar and they are able to put fresh foods out for the students on a daily basis. The community garden has donated food and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program through the USDA provides funding for in-season produce.

“Because of the wellness policy in the district, we have been more and more involved,” Brenda said. “Food service is becoming a balanced part and we don’t feel that we are a separate entity in the schools. I have gone into the classrooms for Fight Bac (bacteria) training, talking about food safety and germs, and we hold a Fun with Foods class. The students like the fresh foods and they really like being a part of making something. Then, they will eat it and try something different.”

When the salad bars were introduced, the food service team did a color study. They were curious to find out what color foods the students would eat – orange, red, green. What they discovered was that orange was a popular color – carrots and mandarin oranges. Red was popular with the middle school students who love the strawberries, but not so much with the elementary. The dark green, as in the leafy lettuce was not popular with the students. The preference was for the lighter green iceberg lettuce. Brenda said they slowly introduced some dark leafy greens into the salad bar by mixing the lettuce together, and now the students know it is just how the lettuce comes at school.

There are 11 cooks in the Columbus School District and Brenda explained with these new requirements, more cooking from scratch will be required. All the cooks in food service go through food safety training and are Serve Safe certified. They have to pass a test, and follow standard recipes in cooking for the students. Brenda is a DTR ( Registered Dietetic Technician), and continues to pursue additional training in food safety and nutrition.

“Everybody shares in the work here,” she said. “We all work as a team.”

Columbus School District participates in the “Fuel Up to Play 60” national football program that empowers students to take charge in making small, everyday changes at school. Students can win prizes, like an NFL player visit, or Super Bowl tickets, for choosing good-for-you foods and getting active for at least 60 minutes every day. They have participated in the program for years and in 2010 won Grand Prize. Brenda took select students to Green Bay to work and play with Green Bay Packers trainers for a day. She explained that this particular award was won by students who made up their own recipe and produced a video demonstration on how to make it. The video was later posted on the “Fuel Up to Play 60” website on the homepage to promote healthy eating.

“Every bit that we do, whether it is cooking the food, making our posters, or doing the wellness projects, it’s making our kids healthy,” Brenda said. “Everything that they do is going to make them healthy because it’s coming from what you need – your nutrients, which you can’t live without. If we base our wellness around that, I think our kids are getting better at choosing what they eat. I’m hoping that our new project works out and that we can get parents involved and show them how it can work for their families.”

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