Norridge, Harwood Heights schools adjust to new food guidelines
Leigh School kindergartner Nadine Muharram gets her taco fixed just the way she likes it. Leigh School's lunch program usually has two choices for the main course, in addition to fresh fruits and vegetables. | Jon Langham~for Sun-Times Media
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Updated: October 21, 2012 1:14PM
NORRIDGE — New federal guidelines are changing the look of school lunches.
Pushing for healthier meals, schools now are required to serve more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Congress in December 2010 approved the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act, which raised nutritional standards for the first time in more than 15 years, according to the USDA.
The guidelines call for offering both fruits and vegetables every day of the week; increasing the availability of whole grain-rich foods; offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties; and reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.
Ridgewood High School has a new food service provider thanks to a student-driven initiative approved by the School Board. Organic Life will serve lunch and snacks at the school.
“They provide a more nutritional, balanced menu,” Superintendent Robert Lupo said of the Chicago-based company.
A big challenge in the change was meeting the minimum and maximum allowances for bread, said Paula Deluca, chief operating officer for FSP.
The 42-year-old Chicago-based company, and its subsidiary Ceres, provides meals to Norridge School District 80 and Pennoyer School District 79.
Complying with the new guidelines was a “finite process” that consisted of developing menus that meet minimum requirements without exceeding the maximum allowable amounts, Deluca said.
She noted FSP for years not only has incorporated more whole grains into its menus, but also has reduced to zero the amount of trans fats in its meals.
According to the USDA, trans fats have been linked to increased levels of low-density, or “bad,” cholesterol that may increase the risk of coronary heart disease.
“We’re ahead of the game,” Deluca said. “And we’ve been formulating recipes on a daily basis to meet the collective goals” of the new federal guidelines.
“The beauty is the menu pattern,” she added. “Kids have options, but they have to take a fruit or vegetable.”
Another challenge is getting students to try new things, Deluca said.
“The kids are not accustomed to these changes,” she said. “They look at their options, maybe try something new.”
Deluca said FSP would adapt its menus as needed in response to feedback.
Angela Golas, lunch coordinator at Leigh Elementary School in Norridge, said the guidelines on grains have been a cause of consternation for students.
“There’s no more cakes, cookies, sweets,” she said. “Kids can get rolls if they’re part of their meal, but not as an additional option.”
Corn muffins one day was the “’highlight of the day,” she noted.
The new system also has caused a little chaos.
“This is all new to us, so it’s a little confusing,” she said. “We don’t always have that cold food option like we used to, so the older kids sometimes want to take two lunches.
Golas noted portions are the same size for kindergartners as they are for eighth graders.
“I wish the lunches were a little larger for the older kids,” she said.
At Ridgewood, the change to Organic Life is part of the overall wellness program the district has pushed, Principal Jennifer Kelsall said.
The new food service provider uses organic and farm-to-table ingredients in the various “restaurant” stations from which students choose their lunches.
Each station reflects the food of a different nationality, including Italian, Asian, Mexican and Greek as well as salads, sandwiches, hot dogs and hamburgers. The company also offers a dessert station.
At the helm of Organic Life is Chef Jonas Falk, who got the idea of serving fresh food to students after reflecting on the meals he ate while attending New Trier High School in Winnetka.
“It was so bad, I knew there had to be a better way get kids good food,” he said.
That the guidelines Organic Life follows already meet those of the new federal requirements was “completely dumb luck,” said Falk, a former fine-dining chef.
“Using fresh ingredients is the only way we know how to do things,” he said of the staff compromised of other four-star restaurant chefs and others with culinary training.