FOLEY - Across Baldwin County, schools observed National School Lunch Week Oct. 14 - 18, but the thought-process to prepare nutritious school lunches is going on behind the scenes before the school …
FOLEY - Across Baldwin County, schools observed National School Lunch Week Oct. 14 - 18, but the thought-process to prepare nutritious school lunches is going on behind the scenes before the school year even begins. Planning and preparing meals for thousands of children is a lot of work, but what all actually goes into meal planning? How is it decided what the weekly menus will be for students?
“USDA sets the guidelines for child nutrition for breakfast and lunch, and then the state department can make those stricter if they choose,” said Erin Miller, director of Child Nutrition Program for Baldwin County Public Schools. “They give us the guidelines so each district can plan their own menus based on that.”
Following the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, schools have been working hard to give students the nutrition they need for a healthy diet. Miller, a dietician, is responsible for preparing the menus for all Baldwin County Schools, using the USDA and state guidelines to base portion sizes, food groups, calories, saturated fat, cholesterol, and more. Weekly menus must have a set amount of whole grains and vegetable subgroups, including red/orange, starchy, green, and beans. Daily menus include a choice of two vegetables and one fruit, usually with a whole grain, fat free milk, and protein. Miller says while dessert isn’t on the menu daily, it typically appears at least once a week.
While following the guidelines, Miller likes to keep things interesting for the children.
“In Baldwin County we do fall, winter, and spring menus, and the winter menus will be starting in November,” she said. “We change a few things, like we’ll add soups and rotate out a few offerings to give the kids a change so they aren’t getting the same thing every week. On every menu cycle we try to include their favorites, you can determine those based on sales.”
Menus are planned in advance, typically two to three months ahead, to offer appropriate time to analyze and make sure the meals meet all the requirements. During school lunch, children are required to have at least three food or drink items on their tray and one item must be a vegetable or fruit, but otherwise they are not required to take a serving of every item offered.
“We offer a wide variety of food each day, but they’re not required to take everything if they don’t want to,” Miller said. “The children can choose what three items they want as long as one is a vegetable or fruit. This reduces waste and gives kids a choice.”
If kids take too much food and get full before they finish, a sharing area is provided for children to leave any unopened packaged food or untouched fruit, where it then can be used by teachers for snack time or go to kids in need.
For children with dietary needs or allergies, their parents can bring in a diet prescription form filled out by the child’s doctor and turn it into the school nurses. They will then get the form to the cafeteria staff and the child’s need will be accommodated, whether it’s glutton free foods, dairy free, or an allergy warning. No special menu is offered, and each case is handled individually to ensure the child’s needs are being met.
“Then of course we maintain food safety, the staff is required to work by Health Department standards and we make sure things are kept at the right temperature,” Miller said. “Parents don’t have to worry about the food not being cooked properly, we make sure that it is, and we make sure that everything is sanitized and cleaned.”
Baldwin County Schools use the website www.myschoolbucks.com for online payment for school breakfast and lunches, and parents can visit the site and put money on their child’s account for quick checkouts during school hours. Parents can choose to pay the account daily, weekly, monthly, or even for the entire year if they choose. Any parent interested in the nutrition facts for school lunches or in viewing the weekly menus can visit www.bcbe.org, or download the Baldwin County Schools app to find the full list of menus and nutrition facts.