Here’s what the News Tribune learned from talking to people in three area school districts about their food programs.
The Superior school district cooks from scratch every day at some of its schools.
At the high school, eight soup choices are offered. The middle school, with its modern kitchen, turns out homemade items like beef stew, turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy, lasagna and wild rice hot dish. Bigger districts generally offer more choices at the middle and high school levels, and Superior, like many districts, offers pizza every day at its middle and high schools. Sub sandwiches and salads are also offered every day.
“It’s good for kids to have choices,” said Jeanne Hopkins, a dietitian and food service director for Superior. “They’re more likely to eat a healthy meal. I don’t think kids would pick pizza every day.”
That pizza uses low-fat cheese and pepperoni and has extra tomato sauce and a whole-wheat crust.
The cooks work hard to encourage students to try new vegetables and fruits, and they help plan the menus based on what students take each day.
Scratch-cooking is important because the cooks can control the amount of salt and fat that go into the dishes. Cook Patti Orlandi does much of that cooking at the middle school.
“I don’t think kids get it at home, with busy moms,” she said. “And I think they should have it instead of all the processed food.”
Caradie Fritze, mom to three enrolled in the district, agrees.
“To be totally honest, I wish that in my own house we didn’t eat processed food,” she said. “I’d love to have fresh veggies and fruits around the house all the time, but they get expensive.”
Last summer school staff grew 100 tomato plants, planted by students in the spring, and used the tomatoes come fall.
“They took ownership of those plants when they were raising them,” Hopkins said. “It was as if the kids were opening their eyes: This is where tomatoes come from. The diced tomatoes on our tacos, this is how they start.”
The Proctor school district makes scratch-cooked food twice a week at the high school and sends that food to the rest of the district. Like everyone else, food service director Liz McLaughlin wants to do more, but the money isn’t there.
“We want students to get a good meal,” she said. “Not just something you can take out of the freezer and heat up all the time. They love pizza and chicken nuggets, but it’s not the only food we feed them.”
Proctor serves a mix of fresh and frozen vegetables and fresh and canned fruits. The canned fruits, McLaughlin said, are something she’d like to replace. Milk is 1 percent and skim, like all of the districts, and fat-free skim chocolate is served in each.
Proctor is ready for changes in the commodities program that would usher in more fresh and healthy products.
“We’ll be looking forward to guideline changes,” McLaughlin said. “[Right now] you’ve got to work with what they allow you to do.”
For Hermantown food service director Lynda Nikko, it’s all about balance: When serving a starchy vegetable like french fries (yes, the government considers it a vegetable) or mashed potatoes, she throws in corn or beans. Hermantown makes scratch food about once a week and serves fresh fruit at least once a week. Because the commodity program is partly based on free and reduced lunch numbers, she said, Hermantown gets less from the government because of its low numbers of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.
But her menus have variety, and she makes things as healthy as she can while ensuring kids will eat it, she said.
The likeability of the food is important to school districts. If most kids brought in a bag lunch, school lunch programs would struggle.
“Obviously, the higher your rate of participation, the more students you have eating,” Nikko said, “thus, the better your program will be.”