McCOOK, Nebraska -- Buy more food locally, the McCook School Board suggested to a representative of the food service program used by the school district.
Larry Young, food service manager of Sodexho, addressed the McCook School Board Monday night at the regular meeting, to update them on the new federal mandates regarding school meals.
In addition to lowering sodium, fat and sugar and requiring students to take a half cup of fruit or vegetables each lunch, Young explained that he was exploring ways to purchase food locally. However, all beef must first be inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture, according to the Beef Council, he said, which eliminates local ranchers. Since he cannot buy directly from ranchers, Young said he has been in contact with a meat processing plant in Lexington, Nebraska, to see what is available.
McCook School Board member Larry Shields said that a local business in McCook, Willow Creek Meats, has a USDA inspector on site that could be utilized and that there was another meat processor in Hayes Center.
Young responded that he would look into it. He added that he is working with Matt Sehnert of Sehnert's Bakery on a formula for pizza dough that will be compliant with the whole grains requirements and portion control and also with Klooz Farms for apples.
Meals may be more on the "bland" side, Young said, due to new requirements restricting salt and sugar, but he is experimenting with combinations of seasonings to help with that issue.
Dawn Garcia, of McCook Public Schools Wellness Committee, told the board that comments about the new lunches have been positive so far, but "areas of improvement" included a separate salad bar.
A separate salad bar at the junior high or elementary school has to incorporate food safety guidelines as well as protein limits, Young answered, so a stand-alone salad bar with croutons, cottage cheese or bacon bits would not be allowed.
What they have in restaurants may not be possible at school cafeterias, he said, as taking a salad bar outside of the cafeteria could compromise the safety issues of the food. But he agreed that more could be done. Yogurt with fruit and specialty salads, like the "Popeye" salad, seem popular with the kids, he said.
With the mandatory fruit requirement, more fruit is being sliced and cut up, Young explained, not only to make it more appealing and help younger students with braces or new teeth growing in, but also to save on fruit thrown away.
In response to a question by board member Shane Messersmith,Young said he has not monitored the trash cans at McCook so did not know how much fruit was discarded by students. McCook business manager Rick Haney said he noticed about a 60 percent drop in discarded fruit, when it was served cut-up or sliced instead of whole.
MHS Student Council board representative Kelsey Siebrandt told the board that because of the short lunch break, many students eat the main meal first, with fruits and vegetables pushed toward the end of the meal and eaten if there is enough time. Cut-up fruit may make it easier for students to eat first, she said.
Board President Tom Bredvick asked about communication from Sodexo to parents concerning the new meal guidelines. Young said that has been a challenge, as school principals have more to worry about than "making sure kids eat their fruits and vegetables."
McCook Elementary principal Tim Garcia said the school's website, at mccookbison.org, posts monthly menus for parents.
Also addressing the school board was Denise Ringenburg, of the Southwest Nebraska Public Health Department. The SWNPHD partners with the school Wellness Committee, she said, and noted that McCook was "ahead of the curve" in incorporating the new meal guidelines.
As of Oct. 1, food service companies are eligible for an additional six-cent per meal reimbursement rate from the federal government if their meal plans are certified by school administration, Young said.
Having kids eat more fruit will take time, Haney said, as it can be a culture change for some students to get used to eating it more regularly.