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School lunches have a bad rap in popular culture — cartoon lunch ladies serve up mystery meat, jiggly masses of who-knows-what and make it all look pretty unappealing.
But in school cafeterias across Oldham County, students are served whole grains, roasted vegetables and lots of home-style cooking.
The school district is the county’s most prolific food franchise, with 17 locations.
And, for the first time in 15 years, the U.S. Department
of Agriculture has announced new school nutrition standards last week.
Oldham nutrition officials are welcoming the changes — in fact, many menu items are already in or near compliance with the new standards, which aim to reduce fat and sodium and increase fruit and vegetable servings.
Pamela Greer, nutrition services director, said working to meet the HealthierUS Challenge standards brought the county up to speed. All 10 of Oldham County’s elementary schools earned the bronze-level award this year, and middle and high schools aren’t far behind, she said.
HUSC is a voluntary national certification initiative that is now part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign.
There are four certification levels — bronze, silver, gold and gold award of distinction.
Oldham County Nutrition Services Assistant Director Leigh Ann Peterson said there is still work to do, but she feels confident the district will have no trouble meeting the new standards, which take effect in the 2014-15 school year.
Kentucky has a national reputation for having the strictest standards for school nutrition, Peterson said, likely stemming from high rates of childhood obesity. And, Oldham County participates in the Ohio Valley Education Cooperative, which is the strictest-of-the-strict.
The cooperative uses a “30-10-30” rule on foods — maximums of 30 percent of calories from fat, 10 percent from saturated fat and 30 percent by weight from sugar.
The national rule, by comparison, is 35-10-35.
In a recent review of elementary menus, OVEC nutritional analyst Kim Mosser told Greer that Oldham County is the cooperative’s first to have less than 1,000 milligrams of sodium on average for lunch — and that they need to add 13 calories to meet the established minimum.
Not only are meals more nutritious, the entire lunch experience has changed.
Stepping inside a school cafeteria is little like it was 30 — or even 10 — years ago. There are bistro tables, taco bars and lots of veggies. Even the atmosphere is different.
That comes from a shift in perception — students are no longer hapless victims who must eat whatever is placed on their tray.
“They’re our customers,” Peterson said. “We have to market our menus to them.”
Students are familiar with food courts and cafeterias are trying to emulate that feel, she said, with different lines from which students can choose.
La Grange Elementary Cafeteria Manager Linda Ford said she’ll offer a student a pencil if it will get them to try, say, a spoonful of zucchini and squash.
Menu items are taste-tested before being added, and nutrition staff constantly ask students where and what they’re eating outside of school.
Roasted red potatoes are found on many restaurant menus now, Peterson said, and are something students will likely see their parents eating.
Red potatoes, zucchini, leafy greens and sweet potatoes will be added to cafeteria menus soon.
Greer said superfood sweet potatoes are to vegetables what Mountain Dew is to caffeine — a metaphor she hopes will encourage students to eat the vegetable rich in fiber, complex carbohydrates, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium.
“Personally, I really like it,” said Caitlin Beyea, a senior at North Oldham High School. Beyea buys her lunch every day, usually opting for a chicken sandwich.
As a student-athlete, she’d like to see more diverse vegetable offerings — there’s frequently mashed potatoes and fries, she said.
Some staples remain, like Papa John’s pizza one day a week. There’s still plenty of breaded chicken, too — but the breading is made with whole grains.
Fewer foods are being fried, Greer said. Deep fryers are gone from elementary schools, and while they’re still used in the middle and high schools, use is limited to three days a week for French fries. Flavored milk is fat-free if flavored, and no more than 1 percent low-fat if unflavored.
There is also more roasted, bone-in chicken — some students have never even seen chicken with the bones still in it, Peterson said.
A la carte lines still exist, but are heavily regulated by a 2005 state senate bill that also applies to school stores and vending machines.
But there’s a balance between what students want and what they get, Peterson said. Elementary students want ribs and chocolate cake, for example — probably a little over budget, as is sushi, a frequent request from older students.
Like any business, the school nutrition program must watch its costs. Some funding comes from state and federal government programs, none comes from the Oldham school district.
To succeed, Greer must make sure the program has enough paying customers and that food offerings stay within budget.
Peterson said new regulations will increase food costs, but food services directors don’t want to pass that price to parents, if
One way Peterson hopes to save on costs is by growing some produce for the program through a campus garden supported by agriculture students, culinary students, the JROTC and young adult transition program.
There’s also a pilot program with Hillview Farm and Orchards in Pleasureville, which is supplying some fruit to the school program.
Peterson and Greer are excited about what’s happening in their program, and said the 110 employees of the program have embraced the changes and helped make them happen.
“We need to teach the kids how to eat — not just in our cafeteria, but in life,” Peterson said.