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School hot lunch: Better than you may remember

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Ask students in the Hudson School District about their favorite places to eat, and their respective school cafeterias may not be on the list. However, most students eating hot lunch in Hudson schools still manage to find things they like to eat that are often good for them as well.

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Joan Allen is the coordinator of the nutrition program for the school district, and things have changed a great deal over the past 25 years she has been with the program. Allen said the biggest changes in school lunch have taken place over the past 10 years.

"We know so much more about the impact of good nutrition and what students need to keep them healthy on a well-balanced diet."

Allen points to the recent switch made districtwide to whole grain bread. "The whole grain bread introduces more fiber and slows the digestion process in combination with other food and helps keep their blood sugar in line. It took a little getting used to but now the kids eat it just like they did the white bread. That's kind of the way it goes. They need a little time like we all do, but now they really seem to like it, especially at the high school, where they have asked that it be used for everything," said Allen.

Allen creates menus weekly for elementary schools and another for the middle and high school. With the aid of computer software, she designs meals that not only meet nutritional guidelines and recommendations but also include the kind of food students like to eat.

That same software allows Allen to see how the students felt about the week's menus. At the end of the week, the computer provides an analysis of what the students actually chose from the week's menu. It breaks the information down into calories and how those calories are distributed among carbohydrates, fats and proteins. It also provides information on vitamin content and the amount of sodium and calcium the students chose.

As any parent knows, what children put on their plate isn't necessarily what they eat, but Allen believes it is a pretty good measure of what students are getting at their lunches, especially at the elementary level.

"We are fortunate at the elementary schools. Teachers and staff are in the lunchroom with the students and encourage them to eat, try new things and 'clean their plates.' They influence the kids, and I think it really helps."

On the secondary level, more is left to the students themselves. Getting them to eat a balanced diet is a challenge, but Allen says that in recent years she has noticed that many of the older students seem to be getting the message about making better choices.

"They still eat more fat than the younger kids but they are also willing to try other things - more salads, fruits and raw vegetables. We work hard to offer them plenty of choices from the foods that are good for them, and I think we are seeing a change among many of them."

There was a big change at the middle school earlier this year when the decision was made to stop selling deep-fried french fries as an a la carte menu item.

"Students were eating so many of them and with all the information we are getting about childhood obesity, we saw it as a way to limit that bad kind of fat in their diets. It created a little bit of a fuss at first but they've adjusted, just like with the bread," said Allen.

The lunch program includes entrees, some of which are prepackaged and some of which are made from scratch in the district's kitchens. One of Allen's favorites is the chicken stir fry (the recipe for 25, one-cup servings appears on this page.) She also found a pizza sauce at a local grocery store that she found far superior to any she could get from her large suppliers.

"Pastorelli's is the best. I think it makes our pizza very special," she said.

The students have their favorites. Top of the list are Italian dunkers, followed by cheese pizza, chicken nuggets, pizza dippers and homemade french toast. At the high school the list also includes pizza calzones and macaroni and cheese.

"But the mac and cheese is so high in fat. We don't make it too often. It's gotten to be kind of a treat," said Allen.

Allen said they have also introduced a new program that offers students a taste of a fruit or vegetable they may not have tried before like kohlrabi or pomegranates. "The pomegranates didn't go over well with the elementary kids but the high school students loved them. We'll serve them again and keep trying new things."

The school lunch program is totally supported by its consumers. The price of hot lunch went up last fall for the first time in many years, and Allen is proud of the fact that the program improves while it continues to pay for itself.

"It's a challenge sometimes to balance the cost with the nutritional level we want to deliver, but we've been able to do it and I believe the program is just getting better."

For more information about Hudson's hot lunch program contact Allen at (715) 386-4250.

Meg Heaton can be reached at mheaton@rivertowns.net.

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Meg Heaton
Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
(715) 808-8604
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