St. Michael-Albertville School Lunch Takes Center Stage

The major question in the school lunch lines–what's with the "orange" potatoes?

It may have been a few days away from Thanksgiving at the time, but food was on the minds of school board members Monday evening as they heard an update from Dolores Helgeson, the district’s food service manager. Helgeson got the board up to date with the food offerings and new federal requirements that have changed-and will continue to change-what students find on their trays each day.

As Senate Majority leader Amy Koch (R-Buffalo) heard loud and clear from students during her recent visit to STMA High School, the students are not pleased that their line-up of starchy favorites-french fries and tator tots- have been replaced with sweet potato fries and tots.

“I thought I’d be getting questions about the Vikings stadium, but it was all about the sweet potatoes,” Koch relayed to board members with a laugh at the Nov. 7 meeting. “They want their tots back!”

Helgeson explained the mystery behind the missing white potatoes, saying new requirements will be capping starchy vegetables at 1 cup per week total, which includes cooked corn, peas, lima beans and all the traditional potato sides. Sweet potatoes, though, are not lumped under this category since they have been deemed to be healthier than white potatoes.

 Other proposed changes include eliminating milk options higher than 1 percent, lowering sodium limits on meals, adding to the fruits and vegetable guidelines and increasing the percentage of grains that must be whole grains, among other things. While the new guidelines have not officially taken effect yet, the school is getting ahead of the game by adding in lentils, whole grain pasta and black beans, along with those sweet potatoes that the high school students love to hate.

 Oh yeah, and there’s that infamous “pizza counts as a vegetable” change, allowing the pizza sauce to count toward a lunch’s total vegetable requirement. For their part, Helgeson says their pizza sauce does not–and will not–be considered a vegetable for their menu planning purposes, even if it is allowed.

To showcase some of the new ways the schools are upping the nutrition quality of school lunches, Helgeson brought in a sampling of new dessert options they have been experimenting with.

Board members and superintendent Dr. Jim Behle were able to celebrate Behle’s recent birthday with samples of black bean brownies and chocolate cake made with beets. The board gamely tried the treats and generally found the options decent tasting, though member Carol Steffens couldn’t help but shudder when she got a bit too many black beans in her brownie bite. Helgeson noted that she might have incorrectly divided the recipe when trying to make a small batch for the board members, since the original recipe was made to serve 100 students.

Helgeson said they have been doing a lot of recipe swapping with other area school districts as they all muddle their way through the new nutrition requirements, which should be voted on by the state legislature shortly and, if all goes as planned, will take effect in the fall of 2012.

“My staff and I want student’s input of menu items and [we] encourage them to give us input on what we can do to make their lunch enjoyable while following the mandated federal guidelines,” Helgeson said.

Along with the new nutrition standards comes a new price to go along with it. Last year St. Michael-Albertville, along with many other school districts, were required to raise school lunch prices by 5 cents per lunch, a policy that is supposed to continue each year until the school lunch price meet or exceeds $2.51, which is the current price reimbursed by the federal government for a free or reduced lunch for students who meet income qualifications.

 Helgeson said there is current $1.3 million balance in the food service reserves, some of which was used to purchase sneeze guards at Big Woods, a new water heater at Middle School East and now a proposed third service line at Middle School East, as Helgeson said they are having trouble getting all the students through the lines in the necessary time.

While Helgeson the food service money cannot, by statute, be moved into other school funds, she said the costs of repairing and replacing food service or kitchen items can come from this fund, along with the increased costs that the new nutrition mandates will require.

 “When you’re talking about adding fresh fruits and vegetables, it’s spendy,” she said.

So if you plan to pass around some plain old white potato dish at Thanksgiving dinner, take heart that your STMA student will likely thank you for it, as it’s back to the orange stuff come Monday.


Samara Postuma November 28, 2011 at 02:29 AM
I would love to know more about the a la carte processes and procedures. With all this talk of healthy eating and making sure hot lunch is in fact a nutritious and balanced meal, why are there fruit snacks, additional sides and entrees and chips for sale in addition to lunch?
Meghan Gutzwiller November 28, 2011 at 03:03 AM
This is a good question Samara. I don't know the official answer but my guess is that these a la carte items are not regulated by the federal government like the traditional hot lunch is. Kids who receive free/reduced lunches cannot take a la carte items (unless they are paying for that extra item themselves). If I'm correct on this, then each school is free to serve what they choose in the a la carte lines unless additional mandates are placed upon them from someone else. I do agree that these additional items are often very unhealthy...I used to eat only a plain bagel with cream cheese for lunch, thinking of it as eating healthy, ha!
Samara Postuma November 28, 2011 at 03:13 AM
Interesting. If that's the case than I wonder how we can get our school district to better self-regulate.
Guy November 30, 2011 at 11:54 PM
This is what my new tax dollars are going to? School lunches are supposed to be healthy, but not fine dining! When I was in school the school lunch was bland and considered a last resort if mom forgot to go to the grocery store.
Meghan Gutzwiller December 01, 2011 at 12:01 AM
@Guy: from what I know, the school lunch program is funded through daily lunch fees and subsidies from the federal government for kids who qualify for the free/reduced price lunch program. The new levy money will not go toward school lunch.


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