Tougher food rules hit school cafeterias in time for new year
While making the dollars work is one part of Kristie Randall's job as Nutrition Director for Morgan County schools, juggling shopping lists and meeting nutritional rules while feeding nearly 1,800 students a day are the major demands on her time.
To add a twist to her juggling act, the West Virginia Legislature just passed stricter nutritional guidelines for school food that went into effect on July 1, 2008.
According to Randall, these rules not only tighten control over food prepared by school staff, the rules may also chip away at a long classroom tradition – cookies and cupcakes from Mom's kitchen.
In part, the new laws says, Due to special dietary needs and food safety concerns, foods and beverages brought or delivered from outside sources may be consumed only by individual students for which they were brought or delivered, and not by the general student population.
Randall said the law applies the same health guidelines to second-graders' holiday celebrations as to school-prepared lunches. For the most part, Mom's double-chocolate brownies don't make the grade.
And the new rules say schools must monitor these homemade treats, in part, to protect children who may have dangerous and life-threatening food allergies.
Randall said many people don't grasp how serious conditions like nut allergies really are, but each of Morgan County's schools have several students who would have life-threatening reactions to food allergens, if they were mistakenly exposed to them.
Primarily, though, the state's new food guidelines are simply taking aim at the widely-diagnosed problems of childhood obesity and poor nutrition.
They do that by requiring schools to offer more whole grains, fresh vegetable and fruit options, and a smaller percentage of calories from fat and sugar. Schools are also being pushed to offer more water with meals, and stick with low-fat milk.
Caffeine, artificial sweeteners and sodas are all forbidden.
A big cupboard
In order to feed an average of 1,800 students a day, Morgan County Schools has to handle a staggering amount of foodstuff.
The school system will need 145,000 loaves of bread, 36,000 hot dog buns, 192,000 hamburger buns and 486,000 cartons of milk in the coming year.
Cases of strawberries, watermelons, citrus fruit and other fresh produce will be delivered weekly to the school's central storage facility.
Crates of chicken patties, hamburgers, and assorted canned goods will stack up in storage rooms at the county's eight schools as the opening days of the new academic year unfold.
In addition to the school system's five main vendors, Morgan County receives commodities from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These include items like ground beef, cheese and canned fruit, and cost the schools only $3.90 per case.
At the beginning of each school year, Randall puts in a written request for what commodities she thinks her school cooks will need to make balanced menus. What she asks for isn't always what she gets, she said, but the federal service is a big money-saver for the school system.
1,800 meals a day
Morgan County's school kitchen staff operates the largest local catering operation by far. In each of eight schools, cooks and aides begin work at 6 a.m. to prepare hot meals for the county's students.
Long before the lasagna hits the plate, those cooks and Randall have prepared menus, calculated grams of protein and fiber, measured out sodium levels and calculated how many cases of noodles and cans of sauce and tubs of cheese they will need to have on hand.
We do our menus a month ahead, then go through menus to double-check the nutritional content, said Randall.
Most of the cook's recipes come from a U.S. Department of Agriculture cookbook that's kept in a binder nearly eight inches thick. Below the recipe, which is calculated in increments of 50 servings, are nutritional facts. These charts guide Randall's choice of meals in her quest to give kids a lot of healthy choices at mealtime.
No matter how much homework Randall and her staff do about healthy eating, school kids usually like the foods you'd expect. Pizza day is always a big draw, along with menus that include hamburgers, chicken nuggets and hot dogs.
We know bean soup day is not a good day, said Randall.
A lot of their preferences are based on what they're getting at home, she said.
Despite the fast-food tastes of most students, some school cooks are surprised by kids' interest in the chicken stir-fry or turkey a la king and fresh fruit like watermelon and strawberries.
Other favorites are yogurt, sausage gravy at breakfast and mandarin oranges, said Randall.
Judith McBee, who has cooked in the schools for 34 years, said her students at Warm Springs Middle School are partial to spaghetti and her Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes.
But they'd eat pizza everyday if you let them, said McBee.
I don't like to serve the kids something I don't like myself, she said.
In her kitchen, lunch service starts at 11 a.m. and continues in shifts until 12:30 p.m. She and four other cooks feed close to 500 students each day, and do it by sticking to a pretty tight cooking schedule.
McBee spent 23 years cooking at North Berkeley School, where everything was made by scratch in a smaller, more basic kitchen. At the middle school, McBee is happy to have the modern equipment that steams faster and keeps food at the proper temperature until it's time for kids to eat.
In the end, all of the nutritional calculations and training and food preparation come down to one thing — hungry students getting fuel for growing and learning.
As Randall said of her menu planning, I try to stick to things students are going to eat, because I want them to eat.