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Valley Parents: School Lunch Choices Improve

  • Alexis Dick, 12, of Grafton, N.H., helps clean up a spilled lunch tray in the kitchen where her mother works at the Indian River School's Get Fresh Café in Canaan, N.H., on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. The café serves approximately 209 students from fifth to eighth grade. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Christopher Danyow, 12, exits the kitchen with two milks and french fries at the Indian River School's Get Fresh Café in Canaan, N.H., on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. Staff at the Café encourage kids to eat a full meal and items are priced so the full meal provides the best deal. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Tanya Ribers, of Grafton, N.H., serves a full meal to a child at the Indian River School's Fresh Picks Café in Canaan, N.H., on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. The café serves 4,000 meals each day to students in the Lebanon, Mascoma, Hartford, Windsor, Weathersfield, Newport and Hartland school districts in addition to Hanover High School. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Tanya Ribers, of Grafton, N.H., adds seasoning to a tray of chicken parmesan at the Indian River Schoo'sl Fresh Picks Café in Canaan, N.H., on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. Ribers arrives at 6 a.m. each morning to prepare breakfast and lunch meals from scratch. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Correspondent
Monday, November 05, 2018

If you walked into the cafeteria of an Upper Valley school, some things would look the same as when you were a student: kids giggling together and trying to sneakily swap snacks, for example. However, instead of seeing the same meal dished out on cafeteria trays, you’d see students taking advantage of different lunch stations that offer many more healthy options than you likely had for school lunch.

“Lunches have changed dramatically since today’s parents were in school,” said Chris Faro, director of business development for Manchester-based Fresh Picks Cafe, which provides 4,000 meals each day to students in the Lebanon, Mascoma, Hartford, Windsor, Weathersfield, Newport and Hartland school districts, and at Hanover High School.

Officials have long attempted to offer lunch to students. The National School Lunch Act, which made free and reduced-priced lunches available to low income students, was signed by President Harry Truman in 1946. Yet for decades school lunches were uninspired, served up by cafeteria ladies with a hairnet and a ladle.

Today’s school lunches are different. In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act revamped the nutritional requirements for school meals, bringing healthier, fresher meals to the forefront.

“Before 2011, students were not required to take fruits or vegetables as part of a lunch, and whole grains were encouraged rather than required. There was no limit on the calories that could be served, and no conscious effort to limit sodium,” Faro said. “Programs had more of an institutional feel, with limited entree choices and not much regard for presentation.”

In order to meet the requirements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, school meal programs began offering more choices, serving fewer processed items and providing more locally sourced foods. Although some regulation has been scaled back by the Trump administration, most of the changes are still in place today, Faro and other experts said.

“The best public school lunch programs of today tend to be more like what parents may have seen when they went to college, with a wide variety of entree and side dish options prepared fresh and presented with more of a restaurant feel,” Faro explained.

In Claremont, where the meals program is run by The Abbey Group, based in Enosburg Falls, Vt., all students have access to a salad bar, which they can visit as many times as they like during lunch. By offering options including salad, soup and different entrees, The Abbey Group hopes to encourage kids to eat well, while reducing waste.

“Students have the ability to choose what they are eating, also known as offer versus serve,” said Debra Belanger, food service director for Claremont. Students in Claremont eat fresh fish, berries from throughout New England and local maple syrup.

Of course, school districts and food service companies must balance meeting the new nutritional requirements with delivering thousands of meals cheaply. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses meals programs for free and reduced lunches that some students are entitled to, meal programs are largely self-funded.

Nationally, the average school lunch costs less than $2.75 per meal in 2018, according to the School Nutrition Association, meaning that providers don’t have much wiggle room when it comes to cost.

“Most schools want to operate their meal programs as its own business, meaning that it is expected to stay in the black,” said Beth Roy, Valley Food and Farm program manager and Farm to School coordinator at Vital Communities. Roy is also the chairwoman of the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union Food Service Committee. “All school meals must meet the federal guidelines put forth by the USDA. That is usually the number one focus. A close second is cost.”

Faro said that companies like Fresh Picks Cafe form partnerships with farmers and grassroots organizations to reduce the cost of buying local.

“Many local items, especially produce and dairy items, can be sourced locally and be competitively priced with national brands,” he said.

Farm to school programs, like that run by Vital Communities, help facilitate cooperation between local growers and schools, while also teaching students about local agriculture.

“The Upper Valley Farm to School Network is a network is all the educators, farmers and community members working to integrate local food and farms into the classrooms, cafeterias and communities of our region,” Roy explained.

Integrating local agriculture into schools’ food programs has economic and health benefits. According to the Vermont Farm to School Network, these programs contribute more than $1.4 million to the state’s economy annually.

Schools with a farm to school program also report serving kids twice as many vegetables as the national average.

“We aim for students to gain an understanding of where their food comes from. We want them to connect with a local farm and get to understand and hopefully experience some aspects of agriculture in the Upper Valley,” Roy said. “We also want to help students expand their pallets by trying new local foods they may not see at home.”