Three area schools have earned top honors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for promoting excellence in nutrition and physical activity.
Manhattan Christian, Monforton and Belgrade schools were recognized as three of 73 Montana schools that qualified for the Healthier US School Challenge awards.
Last Spring, Monforton earned three silver awards for excellence in nutrition and physical activity. The school will receive $3,000 in prize money from the USDA to support its school meals program.
“This was a great collaborative effort involving the school’s wellness committee, comprised of parents and staff,” Monforton School Superintendent Darren Strauch said. “The school lunch program at Monforton is high quality, especially when you realize we are using a remodeled classroom to serve over 300 students.”
At Manhattan Christian, Food Services Manager Brenda Flikkema netted the school two silver awards. Flikkema said though the school is private, the hot lunch program is federally subsidized.
To qualify for the awards, Flikkema had to submit a detailed application with school menus, recipes, nutrition education, opportunities for physical activity and the school’s wellness policy.
Submitting her part of the paperwork mountain wasn’t too challenging. Talking to the school’s various gym teachers and finding out about nutrition education took more time and effort.
Flikkema serves about 170 students in grades kindergarten to 12 each day. In her 11 years in the Manhattan Christian kitchen, Flikkema said she has learned students’ favorite meal: hamburgers. She has also learned that most students are eager to try new things.
Recently Flikkema got student to try pluots, a plum and apricots hybrid. Kids loved them. Flikkema said her staff also works hard to whip things up from scratch.
While daily dinner rolls may be frozen, sub sandwich bread is homemade. And though Flikkema is federally mandated to serve more colorful fruits and veggies, she still finds a way to serve dessert a few times a week. On a Friday afternoon, she says students enjoyed rice krispie bars.
Federal guidelines being handed down to schools for hot lunch programs are increasingly stringent. There are calorie limits for each age group of students.
Cindy Trammell, the head cook at Belgrade’s Ridge View Elementary School, said she is allowed to feed students 600 to 700 calories at lunch.
Since she implemented the My Plate feeding standard last fall, Trammell has worked to lure kids to the new vegetables.
“We’re offering kids different vegetables, legumes, whole grains and fruits,” Trammell said. “I’m trying to put it together in a way that’s colorful and pleasing.”
My Plate is part of the USDA’s nationwide overhaul of the hot lunch system. Since implementation last year, cooks are responsible for adding more fresh fruits and vegetables to students’ trays while offering a few ounces of lean protein and at least one serving of legumes per week.
Half of all grains must be whole grain rich this year. At the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, all grains must be whole grain rich.
Trammell said she was forced to cut back on desserts and offer kids green, red and orange colored produce instead. Some children were hesitant to try foods they’ve never heard of.
“It would be so great if parents would join on the veggie train, so to speak,” Trammell said. “If we can get them to try it, then they usually like it.”
For 20 years, Trammell has worked in Belgrade school kitchens. Her six children graduated from Belgrade High School. She’s well versed in coaxing kids to eat. Over the years though, that challenge has burgeoned.
Old meal favorites, like chicken nuggets, have been nutritionally updated to include a whole grain breading. The cinnamon rolls Trammell used to make from scratch had to be cut from the menu, as did the weekly servings of dessert.
The stacks of paperwork and mounds of federal restrictions have grown as well. This year, she will count students’ calories. Next year, she will watch sodium levels.
Despite the rules, Trammell said she’s happy to implement healthy menus.
“We want parents to know we’re promoting healthy living,” she said. “It’s hard for parents these days. They are really busy.”
Those busy parents have been noticing, too. Last year when Trammell implemented the My Plate menu, parents thanked her for nutritiously feeding their children.
Ridge View students are allowed to pick from two entrees or a salad each day. They can also take side items, like servings of veggies and fruit and a carton of milk. About once a month, Trammell said she can offer and a fan favorite, like chocolate cake.
For her efforts in the kitchen, Trammell earned $500 from the USDA. Both the Heck/Quaw Elementary School and the Intermediate School earned $500 rewards for their work feeding students last year, as well.
Montana State Superintendent Denise Juneau praised the winning schools for their hard work.
“Schools receiving these awards are models for schools across the state because they demonstrate their commitment to the health and wellness of Montana children,” Juneau said. “Children who eat healthy meals and are active are better prepared for success in the classroom.”