Schools cook up new cafeteria menus

The goal is to help students make healthy food choices.

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WALLA WALLA - Walla Walla Public Schools are serving up less fast foods, and more in-house cooked meals as part of changes implemented this school year to its cafeteria menu choices.

With school nutrition a hot national topic, parents throughout the country and community have started taking a closer look at the food served to children in public schools.

As the county's largest school district, Walla Walla schools serve thousands of meals each week. Food Services Director Pam Milleson recently answered some questions detailing the changes in the city's schools, what brought the changes on, and what people can expect to find on school cafeteria menus.

Milleson also highlights continued changes and goals to help students make healthy food choices.

Q: What are some of the changes implemented this year?

A. We increased what we would call scratch cooking. We were doing it two to three times a week last year, and this year we're doing it four times a week. The other is that we took a look at the kid-friendly items, and reduced how many times we were offering them in a week. So instead of pizza and chicken nuggets every day, it's twice a week now. Part of doing that was to reduce the overall sodium for the week.

We also went back down to three choices at the elementary schools rather than five (in a day). At the middle schools we went from six down to four. And during breakfast, we have oatmeal twice a week now too.

Q. Why the change?

A. There was a survey that the district put out as it was developing its new Strategic Plan. That's where several comments came from. And what we kept hearing was "we want more cooking from scratch," and "we want less choices." We heard that pretty loud and clear. The comments that we got were really beneficial.

Q: Has there been any feedback, good or negative?

A. We've had some good feedback, in that they appreciate more of the scratch cooking. Staff is saying they're not getting as much participation with the scratch cooking as we'd like to see. This would be dishes like our beef stroganoff, lasagna, chicken stir-fry. We're looking at some different strategies to get the kids to try the healthier foods, like doing pre-line samples for all the kids on a day we're serving that item.

Q: Some people say you don't offer enough fruits and vegetables. What are the fruit and veggie choices?

A. Each day there's a green salad, and there's usually at least one fresh fruit, sometimes two. We also offer canned fruit, and beans of some type, like black beans or kidney beans. There's whole wheat rolls. There's a fresh vegetable tray. Right now cherry tomatoes are coming in at a really good price. The kids love broccoli, cauliflower. Carrots, always. Radishes.

We're looking at a few more of the frozen vegetables versus canned. We're trying to stay away from canned vegetables because of the sodium.

Q: Anything else new?

A. One of the things our cooks have experimented with is roasted potatoes and carrots and peppers. The kids love them. They're what we consider a whole, simple food. It's part of the vegetable variety bar.

The other thing we found the kids really like is roasted garbanzo beans. So we've got some of our kitchens roasting garbanzo beans and putting them out that way.

Q: What other changes is Food Services looking at?

A. We will be applying for certification through the HealthierUS School Challenge. There are criteria as to fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. It's basically moving schools into meeting the basic nutritional guidelines. We think this would be another good area to say this is what we're doing. We'll start with elementary schools because we feel we're almost there. I'm going to say we meet the criteria at the elementary level, and we're very close to meeting the criteria at the middle schools.

Q: Can people come eat at schools?

A. Absolutely. I think it's important for parents to see for themselves. It lets them know what we're doing, but it also gives them a platform to let us know how we're doing.

I would love to have all of our parents come and spend at least one lunch eating with their kids, and then tell us what they think.

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