Cooking up fresh ideas for school year

Kitchens prepare for students, collaborate with kids on menus, adjust to new rules

August 27, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to The Sun

Teachers weren't the only people at Old Mill High School last week getting ready for the start of classes. On Thursday, more than 30 food service workers were bustling in the cafeteria.

Cheese was being shredded and stored in plastic bags. Turkey breasts were being sliced for subs. Frozen chicken tenders were being lined up on pans. A giant Hobart mixer was stirring up a batch of creamy yellow dressing for coleslaw.

After a summer of no activity, the cafeterias must be cleaned and stocked, and enough food for the first day or two must be prepared in advance.

While much of the routine is the same from year to year, new county wellness guidelines put in place over the summer will slightly change how students and staffers eat.

In response to a federal mandate to improve the healthiness of food offered in schools, the county has adopted guidelines that include banning students from buying soda during school hours and forbidding teachers from using candy as rewards.

But in the cafeterias, the only real change is that hot dog buns, hamburger buns and certain rolls will now be offered in whole-wheat versions as well as white-bread versions, said Renee Koehler, supervisor of food and nutrition services for the school system. Sliced bread was already offered in whole wheat or white.

Koehler said the school system already meets federal laws, which require that students have access to several choices of fruits and vegetables with each meal, as well as set amounts of proteins, starches and dairy.

"It's a USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] standard of what we have to serve," she said. "We've been doing this for years."

Rita Schlossman, manager of the Old Mill cafeteria, agreed.

"I don't think they're going to impact us that much," she said of the new rules. "We already have the fruits and vegetables and all that to choose from."

But that doesn't mean the menu never changes.

Each year, a few middle school and high school students meet with officials from Food and Nutrition Services to discuss the school lunch menus and make suggestions.

"Some things we think they might like, they said, `We don't like that,'" Koehler said. "And we don't put it on the menu."

As a result of those meetings, schools will be introducing a veggie burger this year, said Jodi Risse, one of five area specialists for the school district's Division of Food and Nutrition Services.

They will probably start serving the burger in October, said Risse, who is also a registered dietitian. All middle schools and high schools in the county will serve it, and elementary schools will have the option on the days when hamburgers and cheeseburgers are already being served, she said.

Risse was on hand Thursday to supervise and help with the unpacking and organizing in the Old Mill cafeteria, which serves the high school and two adjoining middle schools.

When the school year is in full swing, the Old Mill cafeteria, the largest in the school system, dishes out about 3,300 meals a day, Risse said.

Throughout the school system, some 118 schools will serve more than 6 million meals over the course of the school year.

Nine to 15 entrees are offered daily at the high schools, and students always have a choice of getting pizza, chicken nuggets or a chicken patty.

At Old Mill, workers removed mozzarella sticks and soft pretzels from boxes, and one person stacked rows of thin frozen steaks that would be seasoned and cooked for subs.

Schlossman expects to sell 350 on Monday.

She said 32 pounds of shredded cheese are used in a typical day, for everything from tacos and fajitas to salads. Though she had only 20 pounds on hand, she said she wasn't worried.

The lunch crowds build up slowly with county schools' staggered start -- only sixth-graders and ninth-graders arrive tomorrow. Plus, those first few weeks, students are more likely to bring lunches from home, she said.

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