While new federal mandates are making school lunches healthier, Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 has had to tweak its menu to make sure students will actually eat the food.
Last year District 25 saw a 7 percent decline in the amount of lunches bought at the district's nine schools, said Food Services Director Coletta Hines-Newell.
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That's a little better than the nationwide average of 10 percent fewer lunches being bought, but still enough that district officials decided to study food options and debut some healthy, but hopefully tastier options for students this fall.
"We were seeing children not trying new foods or being afraid to try new items," Hines-Newell said.
Everything is now required to be whole-grain, including the breading on chicken products like the popular chicken strips. Hines-Newell said that although there is a taste difference, she's hoping students will like the product anyway.
The district worked with third grade students in focus groups to have them test new entree items and came up with 13 new meals, six of which are made from scratch, to be served in district cafeterias this year. The district also hosted two community taste testing events for District 25 families in early August
Another change saw the creation of a 25-day food cycle rather than 15, which makes room for the new meals and reduces repeating meals on the calendar.
"We did this really different from what we've ever done before and we have our fingers crossed," Hines-Newell said. "The changes are well-intentioned, especially at the elementary level. We are helping to form children's food patterns for the rest of their lives. It's just something to get used to."
School board members are hopeful the new menu will get students buying healthy lunches.
"I think we're making fabulous strides to make the process entertaining and to give the students food that is good to eat" said board member Rich Olejniczak.
Some of the changes are minor, but will make a big difference. For example, a new entree being served this year is a chicken slider, which is a chicken breast served on a slider roll. The smaller roll disguises the fact it's actually a smaller serving size.
Elementary students also no longer have the option to buy a cookie as dessert, starting this year. Middle school students are now being served a whole-grain cookie, which Hines-Newell said is not being received well so far. Sales are already half of what was being done last year.
She said the food services department will be doing taste testing with students to see if they can make a healthier cookie that students want to eat.
Middle school students also are seeing a new option called the "top it station" with a different concept every week, including a mashed potato bar and salad bar with different toppings.
"It's something new and fun for them to customize their food, but also hopefully increasing vegetable consumption, which is always our goal," said Hines-Newell.
Although the changes have been difficult, Hines-Newell said she supports the goal of making students healthier.
"I do believe some of these changes were needed and that's why I've approached it with enthusiasm," Hines-Newell said. "I see a value in eating whole grain products, teaching our children that desserts aren't needed with every meal and the importance of fruits and vegetables. But it has been difficult to have the children accept the product."