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A la carte specials every day. Can this be school lunch?

Can this be school lunch?

Sun Advocate associate editor

This started out as a story about "pink slime" in school food but that turned out to be a non-issue in the Carbon District. The district doesn't buy any ammonia-treated hamburger, according to Patti Rigby, who oversees the school nutrition program.

What the district does buy, however, are menu items that are giving kids a kick in the cafeterias. Things like starfruit and strawberries are introducing students to a range of new tastes and textures. These food choices are not based solely on Rigby's opinion of what kids will eat or throw away. "These are all tested according to presentation, texture and taste. It's not arbitrary at all. It's a science, not like cooking at home," she declares.

The testing results come from UCARE, an organization of 15 school districts representing 243,000 young eaters, otherwise known as students.

That's a lot of purchasing power, and suppliers of school meals are well aware of that, Rigby explains.

As an example, she pulls out color-coded rating sheets on schools of meat entrees. What kids like shows up as items like teriyaki chicken, mandarin orange chicken, flame-broiled beef patty, or breaded whole-muscle chicken patty.

"Mystery meat" is nowhere to be found and for good reason. If the menu items are not already approved by the US Department of Agriculture, the schools don't even look at them.

The USDA and the state have many rules as to what constitutes food and how it is prepared. Here's an example:

The rules say that schools can't offer more than nine servings of grain a week. Okay, so what's a serving?

A 100 percent whole wheat hamburger bun, three inches in diameter, weighs 50 grams and constitutes 1.75 servings. The same bun in the four-inch model weighs 69 grams and has 2.5 servings.

Rigby goes on to say that the grain measurement goes beyond stuff like bread and tortillas. Food planners also have to count the breading on things like those chicken patties mentioned earlier.

It's easy. You just divide the amount of breading in the recipe by the the number of servings, then divide that by 14.75.

The math is something that agrees with Rigby. She also handles things like accounting and purchasing for the district, and even has two offices to reflect the different sets of responsibilities.

However, anyone who wears a "Wild About Cooking" T-shirt to a newspaper interview has got to be excited about more than the numbers involved in school meals.

"I love to watch the kids eat lunch. They are fascinating. It's their social time," she says.

Her goal is to add good food to good company at lunch or breakfast.

That includes getting them to experiment with trying new items they might not find at the fast food restaurants or even in the grocery stores.

What she found from watching the kids eat is that they love mangoes but are not all that sold on papayas. The star fruit was a hit at Bruin Point. She got an $8,500 grant to add more fruits and vegetables at that school.

(Star fruit, by the way, doesn't grow as a star. The whole fruit is shaped like a fluted column, but when it's sliced perpendicular to the longitudinal axis, it yields stars in cross section.)

According to Rigby, it's all well and good to follow the nutritional rules, but in the final analysis, "Kids are picky. Can we serve meals expecting them to eat what's in front of them? No. If they don't like it, it goes in the garbage."

There are some youngsters, for example, who won't eat anything but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The trouble with that is that the peanut butter doesn't count for a whole serving of protein.

So the PBJ people will be getting a choice of string cheese or sunflower seeds to get enough protein.

Offering a choice is important. In fact, a la carte dining is a rule. The school has to offer a grain, meat or some other protein protein, dairy, and fruits and vegetables at each meal. From that assortment, the young diner has to select at least three.

Getting the kids to try something new can be a challenge sometimes. That's why teachers and principals have to be on board.

"One teachers tells them to just go ahead and take a 'no thank you bite,' to see if they like it" she quips.

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