More milk please!
That’s the refrain that Westport School Student Services Coordinator Michelle Rapoza and staff say they hear again and again at lunchtime.
Among many menu changes this year is a switch from 10-ounce milk servings to 8 ounce containers. It’s all part of a federal Healthy Children’s Act mandate to trim fat and calories from school lunches nationwide and boost amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables on student plates.
“That’s one thing they really don’t like but there’s not much we can do about it,” Ms. Rapoza said. “It’s what you have to serve,” according to the National School Lunch Program.
She sympathizes with the students on this point.
“I come from a time when it was always ‘the more milk the better.’ And we drank nothing but whole milk in those days.”
Even though the milk served students is the 1 percent variety (regular and chocolate), the feeling is that reducing serving sizes is one more way to reduce the fat content of student lunches, Ms. Rapoza said. While she appreciates the need for most of the changes, she thinks this one overreaches a bit. “These are growing children after all.”
Ms. Rapoza expected to hear more grumbling about another change — white bread has been relaxed by whole wheat.
“A few looked at it like they were wondering, ‘Has this bread been cooked or something?’” But most took it without comment. She suspects that a change last year to a light-colored wheat bread helped ease the transition.
For students there is now no escaping the fresh fruits and vegetables, some of them grown close to home.“We have beautiful apples from Noquochoke Orchards here in Westport …They don’t cost any more and you can really tell the difference.”
And they are also trying to get more locally grown vegetables onto plates. She said they have already served local broccoli, lettuce, carrots and other produce.
That seems to be going over better at the younger age levels.
“Those students have grown up at a time when there has been more emphasis on fruits and vegetables,” Ms. Rapoza said. “And maybe it’s just easier to change at that age.” She said high schoolers have been somewhat less enthusiastic about the change.
Favorites in this category include apples — “We put big bowls of them out” — oranges, grapes and watermelon. Although some students may be reluctant to choose oranges “because of the work involved,” the staff is willing to help cut oranges up if asked.
The quest to eliminate fat has not meant the end of old favorites like pizza, hot dogs, chicken patties and hamburgers.
“We still have pizza day and that is a favorite.” Gone mostly unnoticed is that the pizza dough is now whole wheat.
But the days of “doubling up” on lunch servings such as hot dogs are done.
“That’s something else that some aren’t so happy about,” she said, but the rules here are clear — no seconds.
There is an exception, however. If parents send their children with enough money to buy a second lunch, that is allowed. “It’s a parent’s prerogative.”
“We can only get reimbursed for each lunch sold,” Ms. Rapoza said.
In addition to the daily lunch menu item, which tends to be a healthy choice, there is also a second option (such as hot dog) that is rotated, generally on a monthly basis.
Ms. Rapoza said she had expected to hear more about price hikes.
This year, lunch prices for the youngest students (grades K through 4) have risen from $1.75 to $2. For grades 5 through 12, the price has gone from $2 to $2.25.
Although no increase is ever welcome, Ms. Rapoza said she thinks school lunches remain a real bargain. Westport’s lunches are still among the state’s least expensive and, she believes, cheaper by far than the cost of packing a lunch at home.
Others must agree.
Of Westport’s 1,600 public school students, 67 percent buy rather than bring their school lunches.
Big as this year’s menu changes may seem to some, much more is on the way in what is designed to be a three-year transition toward healthier lunches.
“We are looking at calorie counts, sodium and fat percentages and more,” Ms. Rapoza said. “It’s going to be interesting.”