*This story first appeared in The Budget’s April 18, 2018, Local Edition.
By Stacey Carmany
Getting kids to eat healthy can be a challenge, but it’s one that Melissa Biltz embraces every school day.
For the last five years, Biltz has headed up the nutrition programs at the Garaway and East Holmes school districts, a role that has her constantly balancing federal school nutrition standards and food costs to create menus that are not only nutritious and cost-effective but that also appeal to students.
“There’s a lot of things to consider. You want to balance good nutrition, but it’s more important that we have the kids eating in the cafeteria,” she shared. “We also need to be fiscally responsible to the taxpayers, which I’d say is a large portion of my job, to make sure that we try our best to be self-sustaining.”
It’s a delicate line that schools across the country have been walking since 2012 when the national nutrition standards for schools were revised for the first time in 15 years.
For many schools, the biggest challenge has not been adhering to the new standards, which require meals to be balanced with a combination of fruits and vegetables, low-fat or fat-free dairy and whole grains. It’s been getting students to embrace the healthier options.
At Garaway and East Holmes, the focus has been building menus that empower students with healthy options but also include familiar foods that kids like to eat.
Biltz explained that both districts are currently using menus that cycle through a set number of hot entree options and then repeat from the beginning so the same item is always offered on the same day of the week.
Menu items are selected based on their popularity among students, and all buildings except for Garaway 7-12 follow a 15-day menu cycle.
“That’s worked out really well because there are so many standards as far as calorie content, the amount of sodium, saturated fats,” Biltz explained. “If you can get a menu the kids like and you repeat it every 15 days, they seem to do ok with that.”
The current lineup of popular hot lunch entrees offered on a rotating basis in both districts includes kids favorites like chicken nuggets, mini corn dogs, popcorn chicken, and several different varieties of pizza.
Biltz noted that several additional entree options including homemade chicken and mac n cheese were also introduced into the rotation this year but were met with mixed reviews from students.
“They continue to be low-count days, and the kids would rather have cheeseburgers and hot dogs,” she said. “I think the big thing is kids are afraid to try something new.”
Fortunately, the new menu is also about giving students choices.
At the elementary level, students now have the option to substitute the day’s hot lunch entree for yogurt or peanut butter and jelly, and all lunches include the student’s choice of milk, fruit, and vegetable.
“A lot of times, kids will go home and say, ‘I don’t get enough to eat,’ but it’s because they’re not taking advantage of the food we have,” Biltz said.
Students in grades 3-6 at Gar- away also have two additional main dish options, entree salads and yogurt parfaits, and at the 7-12 building, students have even more decisions to make.
For their lunch entree, students can choose from a variety of favorites that are offered daily including pizza, steak burgers and crispy chicken sandwiches, or, for those who would rather customize their meal, there’s also a second lunch line that offers a variety of grab-and-go options.
One thing that Biltz said she has been focusing on this year has been improving the quality of some of the products. “This year we started
using those chicken breasts and those steak burgers and got rid of the products that had soy in them,” she said. “We feel like we need to be competitive against fast food restaurants, so if we can offer something of higher quality, I think it gives us a better reputation.”
There are also a few additional products that Biltz would like to try out next year including pre-cooked shredded turkey and cheddar cheese bread twists. It’s just a matter of whether she can convince the students to try them.