District 25 getting creative to attract students back to school lunches

Participation in the National School Lunch program is dropping in the Arlington Heights elementary schools, but instead of giving up officials are doubling-down their efforts to get kids interested in the healthier food choices.

Food Services Director Coletta Hines-Newell said District 25 is committed to getting more students to eat nutritious school lunches, and get students back to the program.

“We feel this is our year to get out there and let people understand the value of the school lunch program. We are working and committed to rebuilding participation,” she said.

During the recession families may have felt it was less expensive to pack a lunch at home, Hines-Newell said. Research, however, shows students get more nutritious lunches at school than eating one packed by their parents.

Hines-Newell isn't giving up. She has held focus groups, cooking demonstrations in the lunch rooms and family taste tests — another of which will be held for first-grade families on Aug. 31.

District 25 even had a former student, who is now an art teacher, paint murals along the food service lines at the middle schools to brighten up the cafeterias.

Regardless, participation in the program is dropping, she said. The biggest decrease comes from a new regulation mandating all students must take a fruit and vegetable with their lunch.

“It's all about getting the children to value fruits and vegetables,” she said.

The district works with a fruit and vegetable supplier from Bartlett who gets local produce from farmers in five surrounding states, she said.

The district's cafeterias have fruit and vegetable bars with multiple choices each day. “Hopefully we have something that each child will enjoy having for lunch,” she said.

The middle school lunch menu includes creative items such as a potato bar, salads, hummus, turkey burgers, oven roasted chicken, pesto chicken flatbreads, smoothies, a pasta bar, black bean burgers and an egg omelet sandwich.

Many suburban high schools have abandoned the school lunch program as its focus shifted to only healthy choices.

In doing so they forgo federal subsidy dollars in favor of more freedom to serve what students want to eat.

But high school students have more options, as many schools allow them off campus for lunch.

Hines-Newell has been working within the USDA guidelines. It took five years, but she finally convinced the USDA that District 25's popular smoothies meet health regulations.

Another unusual aspect of the District 25 program is that it is handled in-house, rather than being outsourced to a for-profit food management company.

Hines-Newell said the district has put its priority on healthy lunches rather than trying to make money off the food services department.

“I appreciate greatly the emphasis on nutrition,” school board President David Page praised Hines-Newell at a recent meeting. “We look forward to what else you might have for the students this year.”

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