Dietitian Vanessa Carter’s job was to strip School District 51’s school lunch recipes to the core and rebuild them piece by piece, accounting for the nutritional content of each ingredient.
The results can be found in this year’s school lunch menu. Each student in the district who buys lunch is offered a tray every day with up to a cup each of fruits and vegetables, an ounce or more of meat and plenty of whole grains.
Each lunch has a limited target for sodium and saturated fat and the average lunch must not exceed 650 calories for elementary students, 700 calories for middle-schoolers and 850 calories for high school students.
The new standards are part of this year’s implementation of school lunch requirements outlined in the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
School breakfasts will be revamped next year, and sodium guidelines will gradually become more strict over the next 10 years.
The district started work early on new lunch requirements by ditching whole and 2 percent milk three years ago and using only whole grains now, two years before it’s required in U.S. schools.
That makes the transition easier, according to District 51 Nutrition Services Director Dan Sharp, but there still was work to be done. He wanted a professional with experience in nutrient analysis to make sure the district followed new nutritional guidelines.
So the district contracted with Primary Care Partners, where Carter works as a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, to borrow her expertise for up to eight hours a week beginning in April.
“She spent a good deal of time with us last summer working on nutrient analysis and was able to provide feedback for suggested changes to recipes or new dishes,” Sharp said. “The kids for the most part are responding pretty well unless they’re used to processed food at night or fast food at night because those foods are heavily laden with sodium.
“If they’re used to white bread at home, it takes a few tries to get used to whole grain. Our pizza has whole grain crust and low-sugar, low-sodium sauce. Our pizza will taste different if a kid is used to Domino’s,” Sharp said.
Carter said she hopes the new meals and flavors will appeal to kids and help the district increase school lunch participation from last year’s mark of 50 percent. She sees local children on an individual basis at Primary Care Partners and hopes to make a larger impact on the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic by reshaping school meals.
“There’s a big childhood obesity problem, and Mesa County’s not immune to that problem. I see a lot of kids for inappropriate diets, lots of liquid calories, not enough fruits, veggies, or whole grains,” Carter said.
“Hopefully this is going to help, at least for one meal five days a week. And hopefully parents look at the menu and get some ideas (for home dinner offerings).”
Carter said she relies on feedback from students and kitchen staff to learn which recipes may have to be fine-tuned throughout the school year.
More complex recipes and food preparation helped Sharp decide to reorganize his department after a couple employees left and hire two new managers this year, Diana Tarasiewicz and Ann Ahern, to oversee all district kitchens.
Tarasiewicz, a culinary professor at Western Colorado Community College, will help kitchen staff fine-tune ingredients and seasoning without going over nutrient limits.
Kitchen staff will undergo “culinary boot camps” during parent-teacher conference days Oct. 25-26 through a partnership with LiveWell Colorado, according to Sharp. The sessions will teach culinary skills, from knife skills to how to pair recipes.