Cooking up new cafeteria menus in Mt. Lebanon schools

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Orange and fennel salad, fruit blossoms and Mediterranean couscous may not sound like typical school lunch fare.

But food service officials in Mt. Lebanon hope that by offering creative, nutritious dishes like these, they'll encourage kids to eat healthier under new federal regulations for school lunches taking effect this month.

"We all eat with our eyes, so a lot of it is presentation," said Mt. Lebanon assistant food service director Judy Wolfe. "We're trying to get the kids excited about fruits and vegetables and grains."

New U.S. Department of Agriculture standards announced in January require schools to serve larger portions of fruits and vegetables, offer more whole grains and only fat-free or low-fat milk and reduce sodium content in meals.

The district has already enacted similar changes on its own. Last year it began serving strictly low-fat milk. It's started offering more grains and increased fruit and vegetable selections. And it discontinued deep frying years ago; everything is oven-baked.

To implement the latest rules, the district food service team has spent the summer designing menus in six-week cycles based on its own brainstorming and feedback from student surveys and the high school cafeteria advisory group.

Ms. Wolfe attended a summit of school food service professionals in Harrisburg last week to discuss the new regulations, hosted by the Pennsylvania Department of Education and Penn State University's nutrition program.

"It's a little more challenging with the new regulations to try to make everything work," she said.

For example, high schools must serve between nine and 12 servings of grains per week; a whole grain hamburger bun equals not one, but two servings. Tiny details like that are important when crafting weekly menus that accommodate all the mandated changes, she said.

Critics say the new regulations will ultimately leave more food on the plate and create more waste. Ms. Wolfe is realistic and contends if half the students in the district embrace half-plates of fruits and vegetables, more will respond to the changes next year.

"It's going to be a gradual process, but it's a good process," she said.

There's still room for improvement, Ms. Wolfe said. Only about a quarter of the lunch menus districtwide contain food made from scratch -- and even less in the district's elementary schools. Lunch staples like chicken nuggets, hamburgers and hot dogs are prepared at the high school then delivered to all seven elementary schools.

For a program that started just three years ago, though, the elementary school options have expanded quickly, Ms. Wolfe said. For two years, these students have had their pick of unlimited fruits and vegetables, and this year, the district's elementary school food program took the bronze in the HealthierUS School Challenge, a national agriculture department program that honors efforts to promote nutrition and physical activity.

Before 2009, elementary students went home for lunch.

Since Ms. Wolfe started 13 years ago, the district has significantly increased its variety overall, she said. Menus that once offered two entree choices now boast between 10 and 15 at the high school. Students enjoy about four entrees at the middle and elementary schools.

education - neigh_south

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944.


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