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School lunches changing in Mitchell

Quinn Brooks, 8, a second-grader at L.B. Williams Elementary in Mitchell, picks through his rice and beans to eat the black beans at Monday's lunch time. Brooks said Monday that he really does not like the rice, but the "black beans are awesome." (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic) 1 / 2
Students at L.B. Williams Elementary pick fruit and vegetables from the garden bar during lunch Monday afternoon in Mitchell. The garden bar started last week with the options of fruit and vegetables, according to Marlys Weins, kitchen manager at L.B.W. (Sean Ryan/Republic)2 / 2

Whole grains, proteins, fruits and vegetables. Those always have been staples of a well-rounded meal, and the Mitchell School District is trying to make a point of that.

Last week, the school district’s food service provider, Reinhart Foodservice, introduced a program that will attempt to comply with new federal regulations for school lunches. Some of those federal requirements -- which need to be in place by the start of the 2014-15 school year -- include reduced sodium levels, more fruits and vegetables and whole grain-rich products.

Sean Moen, the district’s food services director, said there are growing pains with any changes, but he’s hopeful students will try new foods they might not be accustomed to.

“The kids are probably going to see a few things that they probably aren’t used to and maybe aren’t commonly in a home type of environment,” Moen said. “With the new guidelines, (the federal government) is pushing whole grains so that kids can get used to them and make better eating decisions later in life.”

The new program at Mitchell School District kicked off March 19 and has been in effect for two days because the school was not in session Thursday and Friday for spring break. Moen said the introduction at this point in the school year allows kitchen workers to find any problems before the 2014-15 school year.

Moen said costs are also a factor in getting students healthier meals. For example, soup is high in sodium levels. But low sodium broths are hard to find and usually twice the price of what the school typically buys, Moen said.

“Price is going to be a challenge for some of these things, and that’s always going to be the case,” Moen said. “But I’m convinced we can make it work.”

The National School Lunch Program has upped the requirements for the five food groups in a school lunch, most notably with fruits and vegetables. Students in grades K-12 now get at least 6 ounces of vegetables and 4 ounces of fruits. Previously, that requirement was 4 ounces combined of fruits and vegetables in a day.

“The vegetable requirement has probably been the hardest to comply with because 6 ounces of vegetables for a 5-year old is a lot,” Moen said.

The new standards also adjusts the calorie ranges for school lunch, ranging from 550-650 for children in grades K-5, 600-700 for grades 6-8, and 750-850 for grades 9-12. Moen said he’s heard some comments about whether or not that’s enough for students who are involved with activities, whether that’s band, golf or art.

But not everyone sees the changes in such a welcoming manner. Doug Northrup, of Letcher, said his two sons haven’t been crazy about the lunches at school recently. That includes his 11-year-old son in the fourth grade, who told his dad that Monday’s meal of rice and black beans was “terrible.” He didn’t eat most of his meal Monday at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary.

“Black beans?” Northrup asked. “What kid that age is going to eat black beans? I don’t think I would eat black beans. It just floors me.”

His 17-year old son at the high school has agreed the lunches haven’t been good.

“I think we’re missing the boat here,” Northrup said. “To have the federal government telling schools what kids should and shouldn’t eat is ridiculous. I think that should be up to parents to make those decisions and teach their children what’s good for them.”

Northrup said he’s pleased to see that Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., has asked to loosen meat and grain requirements to allow schools to serve more of those products.

“If families can afford it, more and more are sending their kids to school with a sack lunch,” Noem said in a statement last month. “But where finances are tight, kids are staying in the program, which doesn’t always allow them to get the energy-rich foods they need.”

Mitchell Superintendent Joe Graves said that while the school hasn’t been fully convinced the federal government’s mandates have been necessarily the right decision, he said the kitchen staffs at each school have done a nice job with the changes.

“From a student standpoint, there’s going to be adjustments,” he said. “That’s just how kids are, and it’s going to take a while for everyone to get used to this. Ultimately, I think these changes are good for what we’re trying to do to improve students’ health and decrease obesity.”

Graves said the opportunity to have students try new foods at a young age will be important for them to understand how to make good nutrition choices. And the school lunch staples that kids love are still on the menu, Moen said, as Mitchell students in grades K-5 will see a pasta bar today and chicken nuggets on Thursday.

“We want to expose the kids to new items and have it be a good environment where students can try things out,” Moen said. “The chance to allow students to bring some of these healthy habits home with them is really special.”