Commonsense rules of good parenting are the key in both the home kitchen and the school cafeteria.

Schools around the country are struggling with ways to improve the food they serve to children and thereby improve their health. But how to do it? Make a drastic change to super healthy food? Serve the usual fare with some whole grains thrown in? Teach nutrition in the classroom? What about desserts? Will the children accept different foods? How can schools improve the food without major cost increases?

While these issues are being debated and school cafeterias are having mixed results, one Feingold mom, Kathy Irion, has found the answers and is implementing them in a small school district in Vermont.

During the past school year, Kathy took on the job of Food Service Director for the two Arlington, Vermont schools. In the previous year the system lost $27,000 as they served the typical unhealthy institution food.

The children disliked the food, generally eating only the dessert, and adults rarely ever ate in the cafeteria.

Working with a tiny staff in an old kitchen, Kathy managed to address the issues school administrators and dietitians haven’t been able to tackle. She serves food that tastes great, is healthy, and costs far less than the highly processed selections offered previously.

The Menu

 

Each day there are two entrée selections.

There are choices that are designed to appeal to younger children, older students, and adults. The foods are free of synthetic dyes, artificial finalvermongflavoings, synthetic sweeteners, and the preservatives, BHA, BHT and TBHQ, but the one compromise is the low fat chocolate milk; so far Kathy has not been able to find a suitable version that is free of vanillin.

What’s her secret?

It will come as no surprise to other Feingold moms that Kathy simply prepares food for the children in much the same way she prepares food for her family…but on a larger scale. Homemade soups get a helping hand from a good quality broth, with meat, vegetables, and pasta added. Hamburgers are made with real meat. Italian dishes are simple and popular. Sandwiches and salads don’t need to be boring.

For the breakfasts served at school the sugary, multicolored cereals have been replaced by raisin bran, Rice Krispies, com flakes and Cheerios. Bagels and cream cheese are available and there is always fruit included. Sometimes Kathy bakes muffins. It means starting the day early, but she is rewarded by the appreciation of the children and staff.

Government food

One of the best resources for school meals is the commodity food available from the government. Schools can select from a huge assortment of items, and it isn’t hard to find healthy, natural food. Ground beef, minus soy fillers and MSG, is readily available, as is turkey, pork roast, ham, and canned tuna. Canned tomatoes serve as the basis for Italian dishes and Kathy has lots of options for cheese and pasta. Fresh fruits and vegetables are available, as well as canned and frozen.

She buys as much produce locally as she can, and fills in with a large assortment of foods from a food service company. Kathy wanted to avoid using the huge institutional food suppliers and found a small company that will work with her. She located this company by talking with owners of local restaurants and asking them who provided their foods. She now has a good working relationship with their representative, who alerts her to the most economical choices. The menus are determined by which foods are in season.

Kathy has also made friends with the rep who handles commodity foods. If she needs dried cranberries, for example, the rep can let her know which area school has a surplus and they can exchange foods.

Kathy’s mission statement is to prepare as much from scratch as possible and to use as little prepared foods as possible. However, the processed foods she does use have labels that “read clean.” For some things, like pizza dough, it makes sense to buy them prepared but Kathy can whip up her own natural salad dressings quickly, at a fraction of the cost of prepared.

Fried foods in moderation

 

The children at the Arlington schools do have fried foods, but Kathy will not pair two deep fried items, like French fries and chicken tenders in the same meal. If a meal option is chicken she will serve it with something like buttered noodles and a vegetable.


Even kid-friendly foods like these are natural at the Vermont schools
Encouraging healthy foods

Each meal comes with a choice of 7 to 9 side options. These can include: baby carrots, broccoli, celery, apples, grapes, melon, raisins, cucumber, dried cranberries. Unsweetened applesauce, and tomatoes.

There is a container of ranch dressing to use as a dip. Kathy was delighted to see that one of the children’s favorites is the broccoli!

Since students can’t order just a portion of a meal, and they don’t have the option of filling up on chips, candy and soda, they not only eat the healthier foods, but enjoy them.

Kathy does not believe in offering unhealthy choices in the school cafeteria any more than she would give her own children the option of eating junk food for dinner.

Try new foods

While some nutrition advocates want to “force feed” unfamiliar foods, Kathy takes the approach any good parent would use. She encourages students to taste a new food by offering samples in little 2- ounce “try me” cups. After they tasted the butternut squash soup the children decided it was good and now choose it as a lunch option. The only food that has not yet caught on is the hummus dip, but Kathy hasn’t given up on it yet.

Cooking for a crowd

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s web site provides excellent recipes that use whole foods. It shows how their recipes can be prepared in the quantity that is needed.

Costs

Most of the culinary atrocities that are served to school children are the result of misguided attempts to save money. But Kathy’s natural meals are a bargain, while the previous foods were drastically overpriced. One of the most popular selections at the Arlington schools is the cheese quesadilla; Kathy is able to feed all of the children at both schools for a mere $17. Using uncooked pizza crusts saves 50% and she can make a pizza that serves 8 people for just $3.

Another great money-maker for the cafeteria is the adult meal. Since adults pay $3 for their lunch (still a bargain!) the school makes a profit. The upscale selections are not only bringing in teachers and staff, but parents and grandparents are enjoying lunch at school.

Kathy has even found ways to save money on supplies while making environmentally-friendly choices. The food is served on melamine dishes, with real utensils and plastic trays. Plastic containers (9 cents each) have been replaced with compostable plates that cost just 3 cents each. The cornstarch based try-me cups can also be composted.

Great school food in Vermont

A Feingold mom continues to demonstrate how school food can be healthy, delicious, and economical.

Our own Kathy Irion has demonstrated that any school can provide the best of both worlds — great taste at low cost. The Arlington, Vermont students have a daily choice that includes kid favorites like mac & cheese, pizza and hot dogs (natural versions) as well as Waldorf chicken salad, hot turkey sandwich with homemade mashed potatoes and gravy and cranberry sauce, three-cheese fococcia melt with pesto and tomato, and cranberry-raspberry spinach salad with feta cheese and walnuts. Fresh fruit and veggies are served as side dishes each day. All this is just $2.75.

The Department of Agriculture representatives who conducted their scheduled evaluation were astonished at the fresh, healthy, delicious food and sampled all of the choices. They commented on how it was clear the food was prepared with love. So true!