Joplin Schools work to keep student meals nutritious with new guidance from USDA

National School Lunch Week

This week is National School Lunch week. The USDA released the following statement, praising school food service professionals.

“At USDA we recognize the importance a healthy lunch has on millions of school children across our nation. Without a nutritious and wholesome lunch, students are not being set up for success. One of my first actions when I arrived at USDA was to give school food service professionals more local control-they’re the experts and know what their kids want to eat,” said Secretary Sonny Perdue. “The tireless efforts of school food service professionals deserve recognition and I thank them for their service to our country and their commitment to the future of our generation.”
Christina Barron is the Cafeteria Manager for Columbia Elementary School in Joplin. She has worked in the school food system since 1993, and she has seen how school lunches have changed over the years.

“They’re healthier, we’ve brought more produce in as far as bell peppers and cucumbers and stuff like that, that we didn’t have in the past and now we have watermelon, and we’ve never done that.”

She says the students favorites are not always the healthiest option, though.

“The dessert day is always their favorite, anytime there’s cake or whatever that’s their favorite. They’re in love with the watermelon, I can’t serve enough watermelon, and really one of their favorites is macaroni and cheese, and anything with chicken.”

This month the USDA provided additional flexibilities to schools in terms of what can be in school lunches.

The ‘New Guidance’ brings opportunities for commercially produced smoothies, better guidance on serving milk options and healthier foods that can be incorporated in innovative ways.

Joplin schools is already implementing some of these guidelines.

“Actually we’ve incorporated a smoothie at the high school that is a fruit and protein based like a yogurt based that meets the guidelines for breakfast” said Food Services Director for Joplin Schools, Rick Kenkel.

For the younger students, they have introduced a new frozen fruit juice cup that will be offered occasionally.

“To get fruit into the students, sometimes you have to do alternatives of juice and pureed fruits” added Kenkel.

Kenkel says it’s a trial and error process when it comes to offering healthy options in their schools lunches, but he says they brought in a dietitian and are looking at doing different taste testing’s to make it easier.
Each student’s preferences and tastes are different.

“It’s a challenge to hit all nutritional guidelines, but I think it’s very important for students to have a well-balanced nutritious meal, you know, the ones that complete all five components of a fruit, vegetable, grain, protein, and a milk” added Kenkel.
Barron says her favorite part about her job is seeing the kids, and that making sure they can get two meals at school is the most important.

“I think by us watching what we serve them helps them to keep the nutrients and stuff they really need.”

The ‘New Guidance’ from the USDA is an expansion of flexibilities provided to schools last December. Those included more options around milk, whole grains, and sodium.

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