The average high school student is incredibly busy. The first school buses arrive at 7 a.m. Between homework, extra curricular activities, athletics, and an after school job, students are on the go until late in the evening. But many students do not have access to adequate food sources at home.
Among Palatine-Schaumburg Township High School District 211's 12,000-plus student population, more than 30 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals due to economic hardship.
During the 2013-2014 school year, the food service department served more than 190,000 breakfast and 655,000 lunch meals, with 161,000 breakfasts and 390,000 lunches qualifying as free and reduced-price meals.
Through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has encouraged schools to provide nutritious food in hopes of changing unhealthy lifestyle habits and combating child obesity.
Schools participating in the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs receive federal and state reimbursements for meals that meet USDA guidelines.
Significant changes enacted this year mean menu items will have lower fat levels, fewer calories and primarily consist of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. The updated guidelines will benefit all students and provide nourishment for those who do not have access to well-balanced meals outside of school grounds.
District 211 will be implementing major changes throughout its food service program this fall, including in snack items sold at school.
Palatine and Hoffman Estates High Schools successfully tested the new standards through a revised menu program that meets USDA standards during the past school year. The district will begin districtwide implementation starting with the 2014-2015 school year. The updated menu provides students with the opportunity to choose from more than 10 nutritious entree items daily that meet strict USDA standards.
The pilot trial period was successful in that there was about a 10 percent increase in eligible free and reduced students and an overall increase in meal participation of more than 250 students per day. These may have been students who were eating at school in the past but were choosing less nutritious a la carte options. The additional meals equate to increased access to fruits, vegetables, and dairy that students may not otherwise choose to buy with an a la carte purchase.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obese youth are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. In a recent study, 70 percent of obese youth had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The CDC states that schools play a particularly critical role by establishing a safe and supportive environment with policies and practices that support healthy behaviors. Schools also provide opportunities for students to learn about and practice healthy eating and physical activity behaviors.
The district hopes to encourage healthy nutritional behaviors among students that will continue after graduation. Students can now combine an entree with a choice of a cup of fruit, a cup of vegetables, and low-fat milk to make a well-balanced meal. All grains will be whole grain-rich, including pizza crusts, pasta, rice, and breads.
"Providing students with a variety of healthy options is beneficial for their future," said Mary O'Connor, District 211 director of food services. "The new regulations can be challenging, but they encourage creativity and growth in our program."
To meet the USDA guidelines, District 211 has introduced new products and updated portion sizes. The most significant change students will see will be the introduction of the Smart Snacks in Schools Regulation, which will pertain to a la carte items sold in the cafeteria and in school vending machines, as well as snacks sold for school fundraisers.
In order for a food item to be sold in schools next year, a product must meet at least one of the following criteria:
• Be a "whole grain-rich" product.
• Have as the first ingredient a fruit, vegetable, dairy product, or protein.
• Be a combination food that contains at least ¼ cup of fruit and/or vegetable.
• Contain 10 percent of the daily value of one of the nutrients of public health concern in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or dietary fiber).
Accompaniments such as cream cheese, salad dressing, and butter must be included in the nutrient profile as part of the food item sold.
Foods and beverages also must meet calorie, sodium, fat and sugar limits.
There are exceptions to some guidelines for fundraisers. For example, the standards do not apply during nonschool hours, on weekends, and at off-campus fundraising events, and there's a special exemption for infrequent fundraisers. Experts have proposed that the number of exception days be reduced from 36 days during the coming school year to nine in the 2018-2019 school year.
During the 2013-2014 school year, all District 211 schools increased the availability of fruit and vegetables. Students have the ability to select side items with a meal such as seasonal fresh fruit cups, tossed romaine salad, steamed vegetables, and kale chips. Students may opt to take up to two cups of fruit and/or vegetables with each meal. Popular daily offerings include, sweet potato wedges, cilantro black bean salad, homemade soups, carrot and celery sticks, bananas, sliced strawberries, and 100 percent fruit juice.
"I think it's great that P.H.S. had the opportunity to expand the menu selection," said Debbie Madaj, Palatine High School cafeteria manager. "Students were thrilled to see that their favorite items, like pizza, were available on all lines. The biggest benefit I see is that all menu items are available to students, regardless of their eligibility status."
As more students are becoming health conscious, District 211 continues to experiment with new items, including hummus, spinach and mushroom quesadillas, and tomato, basil, and mozzarella salad.
"I like the variety we have here and that we have a lot of choices to eat," said Danya Lloyd, a freshman who enjoys the complete meals offered at Palatine High School. "Students should have the choice to pick whether or not they want healthy food, but I do agree that schools should be making food healthier for students."
District 211 received more than $1.5 million in government reimbursement last school year. Federal reimbursements provided $2.59 for each reduced lunch sold and $2.99 for every free lunch sold. School districts that opt out of the National School Lunch Program must provide lunches to eligible students at their own cost.
O'Connor said while healthier foods often cost more, District 211's priority is to provide quality, affordable meals to its students.
"Our goal is to expose students to a larger variety of healthy options," O'Connor said. "We have even had parents tell us their children are requesting kale chips at home now after sampling them at lunch."
O'Connor said that student input is vital. Students at Palatine High School, for example, are curious to see what items will be offered under the Smart Snacks in Schools regulation. One of the main concerns is the availability of the chocolate chip cookie. O'Connor assured that cookies will be offered as an a la carte item.
"I like the lunches right now," said Palatine High School freshman Mary Kate Healey, "and I wouldn't really want to change them, because I also like getting the cookies and other stuff. You can tell they have been making healthy changes."
A recent audit conducted by the Illinois State Board of Education to ensure District 211 meals meet the federal guidelines praised the variety of menu choices, as well as the presentation of serving lines. Additionally, the audit mentioned the impressive teamwork of cafeteria staff and student acceptance of the food services program.
O'Connor said that transitioning to the new standards will be a challenge, but also an opportunity to expose students to healthier options.
"I look forward to hearing feedback from our students and focus groups," O'Connor said. "We are working with students to make the necessary changes, and that's key to the success of our program."
For more information, go to adc.d211.org/operations-2/food-service.