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What Goes Into a School Meal? Science, Labor, and Love

 

Rice bowls, burgers, sandwiches, and chicken tenders are frequently on the school menu but so much more goes into making them, such as balancing USDA guidelines with taste-tested, kid approved recipes, nutritional science, and a lot of love. 

We sat down with Anna Lague, registered dietitian nutritionist, who has been behind the scenes (and plates) of Redwood City School District’s (RCSD) Child Nutrition Services for two decades.

How are the menus put together in consideration of nutritional and caloric value from a science standpoint? 

From a science standpoint, the menus must meet the regulations provided by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The regulations are designed to make sure children in the different age categories are offered the serving sizes needed to provide them with a wide range of micronutrients as well as calories.

These regulations cover serving sizes for different age groups. Overall saturated fat must be less than 30% of calories, the grains must be whole (such as brown rice as opposed to white and whole grain tortillas as opposed to white), a variety of fruits and different colored vegetables must be offered, and sodium (salt) is restricted. Only lowfat or nonfat flavored cow's milk can be offered. Cow’s milk is rich in protein, calcium, and vitamin D. 

Fruits in the Cafeteria Line

And how do dietitians combine the science aspect with taste/foods that kids prefer? 

Dietitians and all menu planners strive to balance three key elements:

  • Nutrition by following the USDA menu planning guidelines

  • What children like: by asking them, conducting taste testing, considering traditional items of the student population served

  • Cost: child nutrition programs must be self-sufficient. If they are not, then the school district's General Fund must help support the food service program, which we don’t want to happen as it would mean taking money away from the classroom.

What considerations are given toward comfort foods and multicultural foods that children are familiar with eating?

We know the most popular menu items based on what the students take for lunch and breakfast so we put these on the menu as much as feasible. In Redwood City, one very popular item at almost all our schools is the *pozole that the child nutrition staff make. This is very labor intensive. Most of the time school nutrition programs simply do not have the labor or the kitchen facilities to mass produce a menu item such as pozole, but the child nutrition staff at RCSD are exceptional. They know the students love their pozole so they work really hard to make it for them.

*In RCSD, pozole, a traditional Mexican stew, is made with all white chicken breast and lemon juice, blended chilis, and garlic seasoning which enhance flavor while reducing the high sodium content that a traditional recipe may have. 

How do staff find out which items are the students’ favorites?

In RCSD, we have a process in which our students have the final say on which items are placed on the menu. We don’t give out new items without taste testing first. We pick different schools and work with the student body or leadership. They’re pretty good about feedback. During lunch time, we prepare samples for students and any student can try a sample. Then we ask them to vote on if they liked it or not. We strive to make the items consistent across the board. 

Student Walking Through Cafeteria Line

What are some of the positives of school meals, both physically and emotionally?

Many studies have been done that show the value of school breakfast and lunch. Children that consume school meals have a higher intake of fruits and vegetables, which is important because these provide many micronutrients and fiber. Calcium intake improves because they drink the milk.

As for school outcomes, students stay more alert in school. They are not so stressed by "food insecurity." The meals are lower in fat and sugar when compared with meals from elsewhere. 

What are other benefits of the Child Nutrition Services Program that people might not know about?

It also supports United States agriculture. We use seasonal items such as fresh oranges--like the cara cara, the juiciest and sweetest! Students are exposed to different produce that is seasonal. For example, persimmons, which some kids didn’t know what it was at first.

Introduction to new items and foods cooked in a nutritious way has longstanding positive impacts on children’s health and meal choices down the road. The entire RCSD Child Nutrition Services team is committed to making appealing, healthful meals for students each day. 

Pass the pozole, please!

Redwood City Schools Pozole

Makes 8-12 servings

1 ½ pounds of cooked, skinned, shredded chicken

About 2 ounces of dried chili peppers (California or Anaheim)

4-5 cups of canned Hominy (Maiz Blanco)

1 tsp of oregano

1 clove of fresh garlic

1 – 2 tsp of salt

1 whole onion peeled

1 bay leaf

 

Steps:

1. Cut the tops of the chili peppers and slice down the side to remove all the seeds. Throw

the seeds away.

2. Boil the chilis in 2 cups of water for about 15 minutes until they are soft.

3. Put the chilis in a blender with the water. Add oregano, garlic, and salt and blend well.

4. Add 4-5 cups of canned hominy (maiz blanco) to the red sauce. Add 1 quart of water, the

onion (do not dice), the bay leaf and the whole piece of garlic. Cover the pot and bring to

a boil, then simmer for 1-1½ hours.

5. Remove the onion, bay leaf and whole garlic.

6. You can add the cooked chicken to the pot or portion into bowls and then ladle the sauce

and hominy on the chicken.

7. Garnish with sliced radish, shredded cabbage, sliced lime, and cilantro.

 

Traditionally, pozole is served with tortilla chips.