Healthy choices on the menu

Students are more likely this school year to find acorn squash or collard greens on their plates as part of District 16’s lunch program under the USDA Food and Nutrition Service’s updated nutritional standards requirements in the National School Lunch Program.

Park Terrace teaches students about healthy eating via fruit and veggie stuffed-toys. Third-graders Emily Goude shows a strawberry, while Stajionae Thomas holds up a grape. Photo by Elyse Kaner
Park Terrace teaches students about healthy eating via fruit and veggie stuffed-toys. Third-graders Emily Goude shows a strawberry, while Stajionae Thomas holds up a grape. Photo by Elyse Kaner

But the old standbys of green beans and french fries will still be available.

More fruits and veggies will make their appearance on school lunch trays this year as the district scrambles to meet requirements under the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed into law in 2010 for school meals.

The act upgrades nutritional standards and increases the federal reimbursement rate for school lunches by six cents. It also increases access to school meals and serves as a hunger safety net for children. The updated standards went into effect July 1, 2012.

The bottom line is healthier, more nutritious foods for students eating breakfasts and lunches at school.

“It’s really opening doors to introduce kids to the variety of fruits and vegetables that are out there,” said Amy Kimmel, District 16’s food service director, about the revised food requirements.

Updated standards

Under the updated standards, lunch servings must meet age-appropriate calorie limits. Formerly, a minimum number was required. Now, districts must meet minimum and maximum calorie requirements.

Fruits and vegetable servings will be larger and a wider variety will be offered. Legumes and dark green and red/orange vegetables will surface more often. Only fat-free and low-fat milk will be available. District 16 offers both choices plus chocolate skim milk.

Starting this year, students will be required to take at least a half-cup serving of fruits and vegetables.

Gone is the old food pyramid. In its place is the USDA’s MyPlate, which calls for one-half of the meal comprising fruits and vegetables, while the remaining half includes grains, protein and dairy.

Among the changes students will see in District 16’s lunch program are:

• Larger platter sizes of fruits and vegetables

• Two choices of vegetables, more salads. Prior, one vegetable was served.

• A maximum limit on the number of calories served.

• Reduced saturated, trans fats and sodium in foods

• Standard portion sizes appropriate to age

• Less creamy salad dressings, more vinaigrette dressings

• More made-from-scratch foods. Fewer processed foods

• More whole grains

At this time, 50 percent of the grains offered in SLP’s lunch program are whole grains, including hamburger, hot dog, hoagie buns and bread sticks. Rice and pasta are not whole grain yet. But by 2014 under the new standards, all grains offered at schools must be whole grains.

To be more mindful of healthy eating, the district has partnered with Chef Marshall O’Brien of Minneapolis. O’Brien will bring his Healthy Kids Living Program to school lunchrooms. His program generates community support and features a sustainable model on how to teach kids to eat healthily.

Similar to how the recycling program was introduced into schools and spread to homes, it is the district’s hope that students’ healthy eating habits learned in school will permeate into the home where family members can enjoy the benefits of eating nutritious foods as well, Kimmel said.

An example would be the chicken, pesto, flat bread pizza recently served in the cafeteria the other day. A few parents called the district and asked for the recipe.

“We want to change the mind set that pizza has to have pepperoni on it,” Kimmel said.

According to Kimmel, there is a marked increase in shorter life expectancies nowadays and an increase in undernourished, obese children, the latter which she describes as “an oxymoron.”

Good health boils down to what we eat and what we do, Kimmel said.

“It’s that simple. It’s basic nutrition. Eat food in its whole form. And eat a variety of foods to tap into nutrients,” she said.

District 16, in the 2011-12 school year, served 133,909 breakfasts and 563,609 lunches.

The food service’s over all 2012 operating budget, which is self-sufficient, totals $1.7 million. Lunch prices did not increase this school year.

District 16’s food service program employs 34 full- and part-time people, including cooks, cashiers and food service workers.

The district serves about 5,200 students in Spring Lake Park, and parts of Blaine and Fridley.

Information on the food service program and nutritious eating will be available at PTO meetings.

For more information, visit the district’s website at or

Elyse Kaner is at