Aberdeen students get more fresh, raw veggies

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The bell rings and students start pouring out of their classrooms with one place in mind — the Central High School lunchroom.

During Tuesday’s lunch hour, the food services staff was serving a choice of pizza or chicken drummies, complimented by a choice of made-from-scratch cole slaw, fresh carrots, romaine lettuce from Ipswich and either red or green apples.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires high school students to take at least a half cup of fruits or vegetables, but they can take as much as 1 cup of each for lunch. Some students might balk at the requirement, but most fill their trays with the crisp produce.

“USDA was sending us … the canned green beans, the canned corn, the canned carrots,” Nash said.

And cooking frozen broccoli or cauliflower was not yielding favorable results.

“I just feel like it smells up the whole building,” Nash said. “It’s so unappetizing for people who don’t care for it.”

Now, the vegetable options are a surprise for students who haven’t read the lunch menu, Nash said.

When the new requirements were first implemented, there was national concern about the amount of food students were getting at school, but not much changed in what students were offered at Central, co-kitchen manager Linda Murphy said.

Some students don’t like having to take certain amounts of fruits or vegetables, Murphy said.

One student at Central took some cole slaw, but not half cup, so he was sent back to get more.

New offerings

The way the food is offered has changed a lot, Nash said. Rather than serving canned fruits and canned and steamed vegetables, the district is offering its students more fresh, raw options.

This year, the district purchased about $60,000 worth of produce from USDA and another $15,000 from local growers, Nash said.

“It’s their way to promote small farmers doing something a little different with their cropland,” she said.

When available, the district serves up sliced carrot sticks rather than baby carrots, Nash said.

“The kids do definitely prefer the carrot sticks over the fresh baby (carrots),” she said. “The appearance is so much better, too.”

The district gets romaine, carrots and several other items come from Dakota Gardens near Ipswich. Cabbage for cole slaw sometimes comes from a Hutterite colony, Nash said.

The Hutterite colony has also provided the district with sweet corn for corn on the cob, she said.

“The kids did appreciate having corn on the cob. It was quite a treat and switched things up a bit last fall,” Nash said, noting that students with braces might be the exception.

USDA considers local producers to be within a few hundred miles, Nash said.

“One of the things with the USDA program, they purchase only produce from this country,” Nash said. “When we do purchase bananas, grapes, pineapple — those things are limited from USDA.”

There are hundreds of pounds of tomatoes from USDA in the kitchen storage room at CHS waiting to become pasta sauce or tomato paste to be used in lunches next school year, Murphy said.

The cooks’ job doesn’t take much more time than it used to, Murphy said, but the shift has been from steaming canned vegetables to prepping fresh.

Experimentation

The food services crew is always looking for ways to minimize waste, Nash said. Sharing tables have been implemented at each of the schools — places where unwanted food to be placed so other students can claim it. And Fridays usually feature a medley of fresh veggies, leftovers from previous days of the week.

Not everything is a hit, Nash said. The district served Brussels sprouts, and while some students really like them, they were not particularly popular.

The food service crew also experimented with jicama, a root vegetable, Nash said.

“It’s like eating a raw potato,” she said. “It did not go over, so we haven’t done that again.”

But part of the changes to school lunches were about experimentation — to introduce kids to foods they might not get at home, Nash said. And sometimes, an experiment pays off.

The cooks started serving hamburger steaks topped with gravy, and a student suggested adding mushrooms, she said. The next time hamburger steaks were on the menu, they were topped with sautéed mushrooms.

Knowing when to experiment is key, Nash said. A less popular or new vegetable is usually served on a mashed potato day, because most kids will eat mashed potatoes even if they’re hesitant to try the other option.

Sometimes with a new vegetable, a little ranch dressing is the key to getting students to try it, she said.

USDA requirements

As students get older, they get more choices, Nash said. Elementary students generally get one entree choice, one or two vegetable choices and a fruit choice, limited to a half cup each. In middle and high school, students get two entrees and a few more fruit and vegetable items, depending on the day.

At the high school, there is an extensive snack bar featuring USDA-approved smart snacks like cereal bars, fresh fruit, made-from-scratch banana bread and iced coffee — a new item this spring — that students can purchase with their accounts to supplement lunch. The middle schools also have smart snacks, but not to the scale as Central.

One of the challenges Nash said she has found with the USDA requirements is that the calorie cutoff for fifth-graders is the same as for kindergarteners. The hope is that as kids get older, they get less picky and are more apt to take as many fruits and vegetables as they can.

“If they just have more in their tummies for the afternoon, they’re going to be able to make it through until school gets out,” Nash said.

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Breakfast available

• About three-quarters of the students in the Aberdeen School District eat lunch ever day, but fewer than 20 percent of students eat breakfast, said Susan Nash, food services director for the district.

• In a five-day week, the cafeterias offer breakfast pizza two days, cold cereal two days and yogurt explosion — a yogurt bar with which students can pick their toppings — one day, Nash said.

• Breakfast is available for free and at reduced prices to the same students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

• Breakfast starts at 7:30 a.m. in all the buildings and goes until 7:50, giving latecomers 10 minutes before the bell rings, Nash said.

• At the high school, food services has started offering grab-and-go breakfast bags with things like granola bars, yogurt tubes and juice boxes in them, Nash said.

Aberdeen School District meal pricing

Breakfast

Elementary: $2.05 or 30 cents for students who qualify for reduced-price meals

Middle school: $2.20, 30 cents reduced

High school: $2.35, 30 cents reduced

Adult: $2.65

Lunch

Elementary: $2.80 or 40 cents for students who qualify for reduced-price meals

Middle school: $2.95, 40 cents reduced

High school: $3.20, 40 cents reduced

Adult: $3.95

Seconds

Elementary: 95 cents

Middle school: $1.15

High school: $1.50

Extra milk is 40 cents