Out with nachos, in with whole-grain, fruit
School lunch doesn’t taste the way it did when Cooper Strand was in elementary school.
“It tastes healthier than when I was little,” Strand, 14, said after having his first lunch Wednesday as a Central High School student. “It tastes better, too.”
The district added more whole-grain items, salads and sandwiches during Strand’s middle school years to better meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for calories, fat and nutrients in school meals. This year, the district changed or eliminated some lunch recipes to meet new USDA guidelines for sodium.
By December 2012, U.S. school districts will have to keep all but 540 to 640 milligrams of sodium off breakfast plates and restrict sodium content to 1,230 to 1,420 milligrams at lunch. District 51 Food Service Director Dan Sharp decided to get an early start on the requirements this year and kicked two sodium-rich but popular items off the menu: Frito Pie and Macho Nachos. One menu item, turkey gravy, remains above the 2012 sodium guidelines, but all others either meet or outdo the new guidelines.
Sharp said he could change all recipes now to meet the even stricter sodium guidelines mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 for 10 years from now, but he’d rather transition gradually.
“Kids wouldn’t adapt to it that quickly. They’re going to say ‘This tastes like nursing-home food.’ Ten years gives us more time for students to adjust to the foods and the flavors,” Sharp said.
The district is trying to round up more local produce vendors, and 10 of the 20 main dishes in the district’s lunch rotation are made from scratch starting this year. The district drew inspiration from recipes on the USDA’s Team Nutrition website and the website of chef and healthy-school-lunch advocate Jamie Oliver.
Elementary students got to taste test 16 recipes last year, and the eight that were easiest to make and had the most nutrients were added to this year’s menu. One is beef tamale pie, which replaces the Fritos in Frito Pie with a corn- and green chili-filled corn bread.
“I’m sure some kids will go home and say, ‘Mom, that beef tamale pie tasted good, but it wasn’t as good as Frito Pie.’ Yeah, that’s because it has 500 milligrams less sodium,’” Sharp said.
For now, long lunch lines show students such as Strand are adjusting, although his favorite school lunch is still Frito Pie.