GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - The days of deep-fried, breaded meat products, deep-fried tater tots and canned fruit in sugary syrup are finally a thing of the past.Schools in Mesa County are changing their lunch menu to reflect new standards aimed at improving nutrition and reducing childhood obesity. Processed foods are out, and fresh fruits and vegetables, and meals made from scratch are in.Obesity has almost tripled among children and adolescents over the past three decades, resulting in 17 percent of children in the United States, ages 2-19, who are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Changes in the Mesa County Valley School District 51 lunch program are also intended to teach kids good life-long habits so they will feel better physically and mentally, and do better in school.Fresh fruit, whole grains and unprocessed foods are the new norm. For example, Monday at Chipeta Elementary, the lunch tray included fresh-made corn and black-bean salsa, a cheese quesadilla on a whole-wheat tortilla, a cup of tomato soup made from scratch, and a fresh fruit salad. Last year, the district introduced kids to a few new recipes. "We wanted to phase it in," Dan Sharp, director of nutrition services, said.Diana Tarasiewicz is the manager of District 51 nutrition services - a new position where Tarasiewicz will continually develop recipes, teach staff to cook from scratch, and develop standards so recipes are interpreted correctly at each of the 37 district schools."We had to meet regulations, and we couldn't just send recipes to staff and expect them to know how to do it," Sharp said. Plus, when asked to follow a recipe, there was too much variation amongst kitchen employees who were accustomed to simply opening a cardboard box and placing items on a tray. "We needed someone to teach our employees those culinary skills as we progress toward the scratch model," Sharp said.Tarasiewicz is testing recipes, many from the U.S. Department of Agriculture food and nutrition service website. She's scaling recipes for correct proportions and providing a little taste adjustment when necessary."I'm enhancing flavors without adding sodium, by using herbs (and) seasonings," Tarasiewicz said. For example, the tomato soup at Chipeta tasted a little bland before it was served, so Tarasiewicz "added a little milk, garlic, a touch of sugar, and a small amount of butter.""It made a world of difference," Tarasiewicz said. "I will test things, create new recipes, and will take kids' tastes into consideration."Recipes are reviewed by Vanessa Carter, the district's nutrition services dietitian, to ensure foods are compliant with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The legislation allows the USDA - responsible for the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program - to make real reforms for the first time in 30 years.Carter will help in evaluating the menu for the 2012-13 school year to ensure improvements meet the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act guidelines for lower sodium content, no trans-fats, lower saturated fats, and increased portions of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Tarasiewicz's job will eventually include teaching not only staff, but also students about healthy meals. "Our primary goal now is to fix recipes. Once that's complete I see Diana being part of the education team in the classroom," Sharp said. "We'll be forming a health and wellness committee to serve an advisory role to nutrition services and education in the classroom.In the process, parents may become educated as well."A lot of kids don't recognize some of the fruits and vegetables - grapes, kiwi even melon. A lot of kids have never eaten cantaloupe."Canned fruit hasn't totally disappeared from lunch plates - although kids are encouraged to choose fresh over canned.There are still some canned fruits with light or no syrup in the warehouse, but "once it's gone, it's gone," Tarasiewicz said. District 51 is taking healthy foods a step further by also adding locally grown fruits to the menu.School lunches now feature melons from Hatch Haven in Loma, and gala apples from Bolton's Orchard in Grand Junction. "We want to source as much local (foods) as we possibly can," Tarasiewicz said. "We'll be reaching out to more local farmers for next year."Low-fat 1-percent milk, served with each meal, comes from an Austin, Colo., dairy farm. "We'd eventually like a partnership with a year-round nursery who could grow veggies for us," Sharp said. "And we're working on meat products."Other changes include pizza made with whole-grain pizza dough and turkey pepperoni - lower than pork in salt and fat. Beef hot dogs, instead of pork, are offered for the same reason.Schools are also looking at possibly rescheduling recess before lunch, to encourage kids to take their time and eat their food."It does affect student achievement," Sharp said. "The more a student has consumed the full balance of a meal, the more alert that student will stay in the afternoon. Studies show (nutrition) can impact CSAP, student achievement."Last school year, roughly 50 percent of District 51 students purchased school lunches. Nutrition Services would like to see that number increase."Our main competition is the microwave," Sharp said.Many children bring Ramen noodles, instant cup of noodles, or macaroni and cheese to school and heat it in the microwave oven provided in the school lunchroom. "A lot of parents don't know that Ramen noodles are deep fried to start," Tarasiewicz said. "They're not only high in sodium but they're deep-fried."Kids need more protein than what those instant meals provide, Sharp and Tarasiewicz said."A carbohydrate-heavy meal will cause kids to crash an hour later," Tarasiewicz said. On the other hand, "if they eat their entire (school) lunch meal they will have sustained energy to get through the afternoon."
Tarasiewicz has always been into good food.She owned DMT Catering for 14 years, and at the same time taught chefs at Western Colorado Community College for 12 years. "I'm a huge foodie," Tarasiewicz said. "I grew up with a full garden in France. We had chickens and ducks. We ate from the land. People have lost touch with that unfortunately. Eating locally is best. The flavor is so incredible. That's why we want to enlist local farms, orchards," in school lunch programs. Since Tarasiewicz started four weeks ago, she's found that kitchen employees are excited to have help with the changes. "The need was there," Sharp said. "There was a gap in training with culinary skills. We addressed that with Diana's hiring. It's been a relief on everyone's part." Carol Funk is the kitchen manager at Chipeta Elementary. When she started working for the district in the '80s, everything was scratch cooking, she said. The fast food industry drove schools to change their fare, she added."We're going back to what we used to do, only healthier," she said. "I think this is fantastic. It's more work, but no one seems to mind."District 51 Nutrition Services is an enterprise-zone fund, and is funded separately from the district's general fund budget. The department is self-sufficient, and it operates at a "break-even status," Sharp said. Tarasiewicz's new position was made possible after a restructuring of his department, he said. In conjunction with LiveWell Colorado, Tarasiewicz will conduct a culinary workshop Oct. 25-26 for each of the schools' kitchen managers to teach knife skills, recipe scaling and how to process vegetables.Once everyone is trained to cook from scratch, Tarasiewicz's job won't end. She's been tasked to continue developing tasty, healthy, kid-friendly recipes, and she will supervise the district's 37 school kitchens along with another manager, Ann Ahern.