EDWARDSVILLE • School has been out for weeks, but state and federal officials are hoping school food-service directors and cafeteria workers are spending their summer off testing the likes of butternut squash, bok choy and garbanzo beans on unsuspecting, yet enthusiastic, family members.
The better versed menu mavens are in making such foods appetizing, the better luck they'll have in encouraging elementary, middle and high school students to embrace such menu items in the fall, as schools take steps toward adhering to the nation's significantly revamped school lunch program.
New rules, the first issued in 15 years, were unveiled this year in hopes of introducing more fruits, vegetables and grains to students and taking a meaningful stance in the battle against childhood obesity. The rules — which will double the daily servings of fruit and vegetables, increase the amount of whole grains, and restrict milk offerings to fat-free and low-fat, among other things — require that schools receiving federal funds for breakfast and lunch make sweeping changes to their menus.
The new rules stem from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act, which Congress passed in 2010. The rules will affect food served in cafeteria lunch lines, and any school that receives subsidies for meals will have to follow them to continue being reimbursed. Districts will receive an additional 6 cents per meal if they meet the new standard.
To help everyone from food-service directors to line cooks grasp the new measures, state nutrition experts in Illinois, Missouri and elsewhere are hosting workshops in which the new rules are broken down and food-service employees can take a stab at crafting menus.
One such workshop Thursday in Edwardsville had participants create meals using a laminated poster of a plate that listed required menu components: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. Participants were challenged to create meals and a week's worth of menus under the new federal rules — and to think outside the lunch box, so to speak, in doing so.
The laminated offerings from which they could choose included that longtime school-lunch regular: canned corn. But menu items also included change-of-pace hummus, avocado and refried beans.
"To me, you are offering a classroom when you open your cafeteria to your students," Debbie Collins, of the Illinois State Board of Education's nutrition programs division, said to the gathering of about 50 food-service employees. "Think outside of the most common things they have been exposed to. … Don't feel obligated to expose them to French fries."
Collins explained to the group that many students are limited in the foods they're exposed to. Their parents may not have the financial means, education or creativity to find unusual foods that are healthier than what's plopped on the plates of many kids today, she said.
In hopes of sparking healthy creativity on school menus, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has created lists of foods that help meet the new requirements. For example, dark-green vegetables go beyond broccoli and dark-green leafy lettuce; they also include bok choy, kale, mesclun and watercress. And on the starchy vegetable list are cassava, fresh cowpeas, taro and green bananas.
Collins and her co-presenter, Chad Martel, stressed the need to offer new things, served in new ways — but not on the same day familiar favorites are served.
"Nine out of 10 times they're going to go to what's familiar," said Collins, who encouraged the group to try new foods on their own families this summer.
She and Martel acknowledged, however, that some of the USDA's suggestions do seem a bit, well, crazy.
"The first school that serves green bananas in Illinois, please contact me and let me know how that goes over," she quipped.
In coming years, new standards are expected for a la carte food options and vending machine offerings, neither of which are federally subsidized.
Participants at the workshop Thursday peppered the presenters with questions, from how to classify pizza, to whether it's OK to add a little bit of sugar to applesauce, to how many grams must a whole-grain item weigh to be counted as a whole-grain-rich item.
And they listened to concerns, among them that students would turn up their noses at healthy foods, and that some of the foods had the potential to strain school budgets.
"I understand it, and I even applaud it," Edwardsville School District food service director John Martin said of the new rules. "But you're talking about radically changing what we're doing, and it's concerning. At the high school level, it's just difficult to do. We're going to do it, but it's going to be hard to do."
Collins and Martel stressed that the coming year would be one of learning, that some requirements would be phased in, and that details of some of the new rules had yet to be worked out.
After discussing the finer points of a rule that requires high school students to walk away from the lunch line with a fruit or vegetable on their trays, a cook for the St. Elmo School District wondered aloud what it would take for the students to actually eat such items.
"I'm at the high school, and the kids never take vegetables or fruit," Penny Koontz said. "And now they have to take one or the other. So maybe they'll try them. ... They might try it."