USDA nutrition czar dines with Duluth summer school students

When kids go back to school this year, they'll be getting more fruits and vegetables, fewer red meats and fewer desserts for lunch. But if lunchrooms serve it, will they eat? "On Day 1, Day 30, you may very well see more food discarded than we wo...

Audrey Rowe
Audrey Rowe, USDA Food & Nutrition Service Administrator, has lunch with the kids Wednesday at Laura MacArthur School. She asked them what they liked and disliked about the public school lunch offerings. From left: Karen McCormick with her daughter Sarah, 2, and son Joey, 9. Bob King /

When kids go back to school this year, they'll be getting more fruits and vegetables, fewer red meats and fewer desserts for lunch.

But if lunchrooms serve it, will they eat?

"On Day 1, Day 30, you may very well see more food discarded than we would like," said Audrey Rowe, the federal government's school lunch czar, over lunch on Wednesday at Laura MacArthur School in West Duluth. "But by the end of the year I expect that we will see a reverse in that trend because the students will have gotten used to the change. They will embrace the change."

Rowe, whose official title is administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food & Nutrition Service, was in town to tout new federal guidelines for school lunches that take place this school year and to have lunch with children and adults participating in the summer lunch program at Laura MacArthur.

Rowe, although evangelical in her zeal for healthy school lunches, didn't touch her own lunch of a chicken sandwich, grapes, wax beans, peppers, salad and a side of broccoli. She promised she'd eat it eventually, and Alan Shannon, the public affairs official who accompanied her, blamed himself for making her schedule too tight to allow her to eat.


But the real difficulty seemed to be that Rowe was more eager to quiz her young lunch mates than to eat. She engaged in a dialogue at one table, and then another, eventually abandoning her lunch altogether to visit with three identically dressed girls at yet another table.

After 13-year-old Audrey Tusken told Rowe that she often brings her own lunch to school, Rowe challenged her to try out her school's lunches in September. She said she'd have someone contact Audrey's mom, and she wanted Audrey to send her an e-mail offering feedback on the lunches.

Audrey's mom, Marilee Tusken, later explained that she checks the school lunch menus in advance for all three of her children, sending lunch with them when she knows her children don't like what the school has to offer. "If they don't like it, I don't want them to waste it," she said.

Waste is an issue with Audrey Tusken, who will be in eighth grade at the new Lincoln Park Middle School in September. She said when she attended Stowe Elementary School, discarded bread and meat went to a farm and other foods were composted. She didn't see a similar program at Morgan Park Middle School the past two years, and she saw a lot of food wasted.

"Kids will take fruits and vegetables, and they'll just dump them in the garbage if they don't eat them," Audrey said. "They'll have green beans or steamed broccoli. They don't like that. They'll throw that all away."

Pamela Bowe, food service director for the Duluth schools, said to her knowledge food waste hasn't been tracked, nor is there a uniform program for recycling food waste, although that might be coming.

"As we move into the new buildings, everyone is looking at being more green and being more eco-friendly," Bowe said. "I think that's a process we'll work into. Ideally we'd like it to be the same districtwide."

Duluth students probably won't notice too much of a change in school lunches this year, Bowe said, because the school system already has reached many of the new guidelines.


"We took out some of the sweeter dessert items," Bowe said. "There are two kinds of fruits offered daily and two kinds of vegetables offered daily. And that went over fairly well."

Steve Tomeck, who brings his 7-year-old granddaughter, Madi McKean, to breakfast and lunch at Laura MacArthur, said he has noticed the improvements.

"I was a professional chef my whole life," Tomeck said. "I know what good food is, and this is pretty decent stuff."

Rowe said the lunch she was served on Wednesday would meet the new guidelines. She also said she's not sure the new guidelines provide enough protein at the high school level. And, at least from a nutritional standpoint, she's not a fan of Duluth's open campuses for high schools.

"We don't want the students to come here and take a look at what they're going to get and go across the street and spend their dollar and get a value meal," Rowe said. "I don't have anything against (fast food), but we don't want that to be the sole source of the food that they receive."

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