All Articles Education Q-and-A: Navigating school meal changes

Q-and-A: Navigating school meal changes

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Melanie Konarik, director of child nutrition for Spring Independent School District in Houston and recipient of the 2013 Golden School Foodservice Achievement Management Excellence (FAME) Award, recently shared her thoughts on school meal changes and innovative practices in a Q-and-A with senior education editor Melissa Greenwood. Konarik will be honored as an outstanding leader in the school nutrition profession during the School Nutrition Association‘s 2013 Child Nutrition Industry Conference from Jan. 13 to 15 in San Antonio.

How have the new federal meal standards changed school meals in your district this year?

As a school district, it is critical we promote healthier lifestyles through quality nutritious meal programs and fun physical activities. The USDA’s new meal standards changed our serving line design, setup, utensils — more than just our menus. We have always offered a broad menu in each grade level. We have four entree choices daily in elementary, 16 in middle school (6-8), and 19 in high school (9-12). Portion sizes changed especially in the high schools. We had to change from self service to pre-portioned sides in order to aid cashiers in identification of a reimbursable meal. We also added more space on the lines for fruits and vegetables in temperature-controlled wells (cold and hot). Another major change is the speed of service. Our serving lines have slowed down because of the new requirement that each tray must have a fruit or vegetable.

What have been some of the key challenges and how have you addressed them?

The continuing challenge is to encourage students to try the fruit or vegetable they are required to pick up. Students are offered limited fruits or vegetables at home so our trashcans are full of these unfamiliar items in the schools. The faculty members in the schools are upset to see the waste, but our health department is adamant that foods served on a student’s tray cannot be offered to anyone else once served. One school is considering composting as an FFA project. Another challenge associated with the new meal pattern is the vegetable subgroups that are required weekly. Students’ favorite vegetables are restricted while unfamiliar vegetables such as squash, dark leafy greens and beans are required weekly.

What steps has your district taken to gain student buy-in?

Lunch time is very limited for students, and they are encouraged to eat quickly. Fresh fruit is a problem since it takes more time to eat an apple than canned pineapple chunks. Many schools will not allow any food to leave the cafeteria, causing many students to gulp their milk or eat the last bite of a cheeseburger on the way out the door before they pass the trash can. The principals are under pressure to improve student achievement so restricting breakfast and lunch times and our time to teach nutrition education in the classroom has also been affected. We use the serving lines as our opportunity for teaching nutrition education, but since noise level is high, it is difficult to talk to students. We had to get creative with the use of digital menu boards, banners and posters to relay nutrition facts. In order to encourage students to try school meals, we also have promotions monthly with fun giveaways.

What are some of the innovative or unusual menu items you’ve added to the menu this year?

We have created some innovative new menu items and serving lines this year to promote school lunch participation within the new regulations. In our secondary schools, a build-your-own sub line and an all-Asian cuisine line were added. We have also spiced up the menu on our existing lines with a new queso burger, and other spicier seasonings were added to items like sweet potato fries and legumes. We have also redesigned our serving lines to encourage students to pick up visually attractive fruits and vegetables at the correct temperature — cold or hot — and not overcooked. We have also been innovative with meeting the requirement of showing students what items it takes to make a reimbursable meal. The elementary schools have used MyPlate posters and colored-coded stars by each food item to teach students the difference between a protein, grain, milk, fruit and vegetable, which are all part of a well-balanced meal. While at the upper-grade levels, we have implemented the notification of menu items by using the electronic menu boards. Schools are a place to teach students healthy habits including which foods are nutritious and reasonable portion control, and we believe the cafeteria is a key place to introduce and reinforce these ideas.

Melanie Konarik is a child nutrition director who is responsible for 38 school cafeterias for Spring Independent School District. She has a bachelor of science degree in nutrition and dietetics from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and a master’s in nutrition and institutional management from Texas Woman’s University. She regularly does interviews, presentations and teaches classes for the School Nutrition Association and the Texas Association of School Business Officials. She is actively involved nationally on Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. She has held national offices in SNA, state offices with the Texas Association for School Nutrition and her local district.