SCHOOL LUNCH

Some smaller schools bristle at new school meal requirements

2011-01-15T00:15:00Z 2011-01-15T00:31:33Z Some smaller schools bristle at new school meal requirementsBy ROB ROGERS Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
January 15, 2011 12:15 am  • 

It was a potato bar for lunch at Independent Elementary School on Friday.

"It's good," one first-grader exclaimed, after biting into a chili-topped baked spud.

However, it's all the potatoes the students will get in a week under new guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture released Thursday.

The requirements apply to federally subsidized school lunches, which are served by most public schools, including Billings School District 2 and the smaller schools in the area.

The guidelines require schools to serve students no more than one cup of starchy vegetables a week, cut sodium from meals by more than half, increase the whole grains they offer and serve low-fat milk.

SD2, which contracts with the national food service provider Sodexo for its meals, won't feel much impact from the change. Sodexo already follows many of the regulations. 

However, smaller schools in the area — most of which make their own meals often from scratch — are reacting to the news with a shrug of the shoulders or an annoyed harrumph.

Jeanie Shellenberger, the school cook at Reed Point High, isn't convinced that the USDA knows what's best for her students — especially when it comes to the rule on limiting starchy vegetables.

"They love their potatoes," she said. "They're from that meat-and-potato culture."

She understands the standard was set to discourage schools from serving french fries everyday. But, she said, her students don't eat a lot of french fries.

"They love their mashed potatoes," she said.

She also pointed out that the students she feeds aren't big-city kids filling up on fast-food burgers and tacos before and after school. They're ranch kids, she said. Many live on farms and seldom eat fast food.

Reed Point has no fast-food restaurants, she pointed out. To get a Big Mac, her students have to drive 18 miles east to Columbus.

In fact, when Shellenberger serves hamburgers, she dishes them up on buns she has baked from scratch in the school's oven.

The schools already serve fresh fruit and vegetables every lunch hour, another of the new USDA requirements. And one day every two weeks or so, the school does a chef's salad bar where salad is the only thing offered for lunch.

"That's one of their favorite days," said Dwain Haggard, the school's superintendent/principal.

Schools like Independent and Reed Point also worry about the waste the new requirements could cause. Offering a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables every day means more of it ends up in the trash can at the end of the lunch period.

"If we're going to do this, I just hope they increase our funding," said Janice Topelka, the cook at Independent.

Topelka said she knew the reduced sodium requirements were on their way, so the school had made preparations to cut it down. Although, she said, the school doesn't serve a lot of processed food so there wasn't a lot of sodium cutting to do.

"I don't know that we're going to have to adjust a lot," she said.

The school switched to whole-grain pasta earlier this year, which caused some alarm among students when they were served brown spaghetti noodles.

Topelka told the kids to go ahead and try it, telling them they wouldn't taste a difference. They ate the spaghetti just like before, she said.

"They've adjusted," she said.

The USDA relies on the individual states to enforce the requirements. In Montana, the Office of Public Instruction performs site inspection once every four years or so, Shellenberger said. Schools send in their menu every school year.

She said she'd comply with the new standards as far as she's able, but she wasn't going to sweat it too much.

"We feed them one meal a day," she said. "We're not the ones making them fat."

Contact Rob Rogers at rrogers@billingsgazette.com or 657-1231.

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