Environmental Charter School tests out looming lunch regulations

Regent Square school gets with the Michelle Obama program. Kids comply.


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A crisp romaine salad with chicken or tofu and Kraft Creamy Italian dressing led the menu Wednesday.

Scattered around the tray were raw carrots, cooked corn and peas, an apple and a whole wheat roll.

The drink of the hour was milk -- skim, 1 percent or soy.

And, as the children strolled through the lunch line at The Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, there were no tantrums, no demands for pizza and few ill looks.

The school -- which contracts with local restaurants to serve their students healthy and often organic, locally sourced food -- Wednesday tested the new school lunch regulations announced by first lady Michelle Obama late last month.

The school mimicked a meal from a sample menu provided by the White House to celebrate the new rules, which call for increasing fruit and vegetable servings and cutting back on sodium, saturated fat and trans fats.

"There's a mountain of evidence to connect healthy eating and learning," said principal Jon McCann. "It's more work and more time invested in the school, but the outcomes are great, for the kids, the community and our health. We want to build a model that we can replicate and can be modeled at other public schools."

But even for schools with more flexible budgets, like The Environmental Charter School, complying with the new regulations -- while offering local and economically sustainable food -- isn't an easy task.

"We're still finding that sweet spot," said Nikole Sheaffer, academic director.

Shawn Carlson, head chef at Cafe Phipps, which contracted with the school to prepare the meal, said he estimates that it cost about $3.50 per plate to produce.

Kelsey Weisgerber, the school's food educator, said the school charges students $2.10 per meal and is currently reimbursed $2.77 cents by the federal government for each child that receives a free and reduced lunch.

And when the new regulations kick in next school year, schools will get only an additional 6 cents per reduced-lunch student from the government.

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"But when you're asking to serve fresh vegetables, leafy green vegetables and whole grain, fresh products are going to be more expensive," she said.

Another difficult aspect of the regulations is getting students to eat the food.

Charlie Joe Rosemeyer said he "sorta" liked the meal but prefers pudding or cake.

"There's a few other things I would like to be eating, but the new regulations would not allow it," said the 8-year-old, who learned of the national changes on the news.

Pittsburgh Public Schools is anticipating responses similar to Charlie Joe's from students when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 takes effect.

"It's not so much the difficulty in the menu planning, it's getting the children to buy into the menu," said Curtistine Walker, the district's coordinator of building operations, who oversees the cafeterias.

She anticipates that students won't be too fond of new rules that require flavored milk to be fat-free.

"As soon as the children read 'fat-free,' they aren't going to want to drink it because it says 'fat-free,' " she said.

Currently, schools only have to offer students their serving of vegetables and fruits.

Now, in order to receive a reduced-lunch reimbursement, the changes require that students must take the food, which will increase the overall cost to the school, she said.

The Environmental Charter School emphasizes food education to increase consumption.

Ms. Weisgerber, often seen in blazers and boots, transcends the idea of a traditional lunch lady and knows that students have to understand the benefits of healthy food to make smart choices at home.

"When I first started here, I was blown away that these kids were eating these things," Ms. Weisgerber said.

Weisgerber, 24, came to the school, which doesn't have a kitchen, in July with a graduate degree in food science from the University of Pittsburgh and a slew of contacts in the local food scene.

She designed a new lunch system where local restaurants -- such as Mad Mex, Avenue B, Gosia's Pierogies, Buffalo Blues and the Franktuary -- provide the meals each day, and she often asks them to talk to students about the food.

Mr. Carlson at Cafe Phipps, who made his first appearance at the school Wednesday to serve food in the celebration, said the conservatory wants to participate even if it might not be a cost-effective situation for them.

"We want to set the example," he said. "It's the best way to start, with kids, to develop better eating habits."

Food education is also incorporated in the classroom.

In fourth grade, students are asked to debate whether a fruit or vegetable should be imported year-round, taking into consideration the cost of transportation, energy and nutrient availability, and other variables.

Next year the school will work with Grow Pittsburgh, a nonprofit dedicated to urban food production and education in the Pittsburgh region, to plan an edible school garden.

And, in some ways, the educators use food to reach students.

Fifth-grader Riley Deringor, 11, isn't a fan of writing, but he loves food, so his teacher allowed him to write reviews of the school lunches, he said.

Riley is now the school's restaurant critic.

Each time a new restaurant provides lunch, he samples the menu. Then he races back to his classroom, where he has less than an hour to type up a review and post it in the cafeteria before the lunch period beings.

Riley said most of the meals are a hit.

He brought his lunch Wednesday, but his last review of a chicken tabouli wrap from Soup Nancys in the Strip District was still posted in the cafeteria.

"The chicken wrap was a little dry, but with the apple it became a moist balance of flavors," the fifth-grader wrote. "The chicken's taste was chewy and dry with a sauce that added a delectable first taste, but a bland aftertaste."

He finished by saying the meal "should not be missed for any reason unless you are allergic."


Taryn Luna: 412-263-1985 or tluna@post-gazette.com . First Published February 9, 2012 5:00 AM


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