Colorful displays of vegetable offerings in school cafeterias throughout the Muscatine Community School District offer students a variety of choices as they select two servings of fruit and/or vegetables to complete their lunch.

MUSCATINE, Iowa — Like many of his peers, Muscatine High School sophomore Sean Orlins is struggling to accept the fact that French fries are no longer part of the school lunch menu.

“They took out the fries and the Bosco Sticks,” Orlins said, referring to the cheese-filled bread sticks that were once served with pasta meals.

Orlins isn’t the only one adjusting to the new menu.

Students throughout the Muscatine School District are also sinking their teeth into the new menu, thanks to the regulations of the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, a law that requires all U.S. schools to trim the fat, shake down on the salt and increase the servings of vegetables and fruits served with each meal.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the law, which was passed in 2010, allows its department the chance to make significant reforms to school meals for the first time in more than 30 years.

Alisha Eggers, the food service, nutrition and custodial supervisor for the Muscatine School District, said the law is being phased in beginning this year, with added changes through 2022.

Eggers hopes to find a product similar to Bosco Sticks, but she said not to expect to find French fries on students’ trays anytime soon — or at all, for that matter.

“We are allowed to serve one starchy vegetable a week, and we can serve some sort of oven-baked potato,” said Eggers. “But we will not return to serving fried potatoes of any sort.”

A worthwhile challenge

The new federal guidelines has led to complaints from some parents and students, especially those at the high school level, said school district dietitian Cindy Rada, but she believes the challenge of dealing with disgruntled diners and their parents is worth it, given the benefits of a healthier menu.

Before she began working for the school district, Rada was the dietician for Muscatine’s Trinity Health Systems where she met many children and teens with obesity-related health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

“A baby born today has a one in three chance of developing diabetes in their lifetime,” said Rada.

A scientific approach

Recommendations for the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act were handed down by The Institute of Medicine, a panel of medical professionals who advise the federal government on issues of medical care, research and education.

The new menu is based on the food groups of meat and meat alternatives, grains, milk, fruits and vegetables.

Students are divided into groups of kindergarten through fifth grade; sixth through eighth grade and ninth grade through seniors.

The menus can vary based on the group. For example, menus for the older students reflect the extra calories they require.

Fruit and vegetables

The new regulations require all students to select at least one fruit or vegetable to round out their lunch.

And while the new rules may allow school staff to lead the students to fruits and veggies, they can’t make them eat.

Students who won’t eat their fruits and vegetables can leave them on lunch room sharing tables for other students to take. 

Rada said many students are tasting fruits and vegetables they didn’t know existed.

“One little boy was asking for purple apples,” said Rada. “He meant plums.”

Rada and Eggers said the Muscatine School District took the initiative to offer more fruits and vegetables two years ago, which has made the transition smoother.

On Sept. 13, MHS students sat in the cafeteria peeling oranges and biting into fresh, whole peaches.

MHS senior Kirsten Sievert said she doesn’t mind following the new rule.

“That’s no big deal,” she said. “I would have eaten the fruit and vegetables anyway.”

Junior Elizabeth Villagrana said the abundance of raw foods doesn’t diminish her cravings for an old favorite.

“I took fruit before,” she said. “But there’s no more fries. What are you supposed to eat?”

More balance

Many high school students also lamented what they described as smaller submarine sandwiches and  smaller portioned entrees.

The new balance is designed to encourage students to eat from a variety of food groups with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

“A good indication that you’re eating healthy is when you’re plate is colorful,” said Rada.

Students also complained about the new limits on condiments such as ketchup and ranch dressing,  because of the sodium and fat content.

“We get one little pack of ketchup,” said junior Sylvia Trejo. “If you want another you have to pay for it.”

 Rada said pickles have been totally eliminated. “We used to serve them every day,” she said. “Now we don’t offer them at all because of their sodium content.”

Saturated fat levels are also targeted. One step toward that goal is serving skim and one percent milk.

Moving forward

Eggers and Rada said the school district has received complaints from students and parents who don’t understand the new federal regulations.

They want to partner with families in steering students toward healthier eating habits.

“One of the most effective ways to encourage kids to eat fruits and vegetables is to offer them at home and have parents as role models,” said Rada.

Eggers said the transition is an opportunity to teach students about combining good nutrition with appetizing food choices.

Exchanging Romaine lettuce for iceberg lettuce in chef salads and serving fresh corn-on-the-cob, grown locally by Muscatine High School FFA students, are two of the many ways Eggers and her staff are meeting the challenge.

“It’s neat to see the food service program standing out,” said Eggers. “We have a captive audience, and if we use our creativity, we can retain their participation.”