School cafeterias putting nutrition on front-burner

Beginning this fall, a bowl of whole, fresh fruit will be waiting for students at the end of the cafeteria line every school day.

The new option, to be offered at the 76 Catholic elementary and high schools enrolled in the National School Lunch program, will supplement the three weekly servings of raw fruit and vegetables local students already receive at lunch.

“If they see (fresh fruit) every day, they’re more likely to take it at some point, so overall it will be a big health benefit,” said Jenny Ridings Montz, nutrition coordinator for School Food and Nutrition Services of New Orleans, Inc., which operates the federally sponsored programs that provide a daily school lunch to 24,000 students and breakfast to 3,100.

“A complete school lunch must have at least two ounces of lean meat or meat alternate, two ounces of grain, a full cup of fresh, canned or frozen fruits or vegetables, and a milk,” said Montz of the daily breakdown, which follows strict guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The daily school lunch is also required to meet one-third of the recommended daily intake for calories, protein, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium; derive less than 30 percent of its calories from fat; and less than 10 percent of its calories from saturated fat.

Montz, 30, plans the weekly lunch and breakfast menus used across the archdiocese and does the related nutritional analysis to ensure they adhere to the USDA guidelines.

“We have been making a lot of changes, but in baby steps,” Montz said, noting that School Food and Nutrition Services introduced whole-wheat spaghetti last year and will begin using whole-wheat rotini in dishes such as macaroni and cheese this fall. In 2011-12, whole-wheat rolls will be offered at least three times a week, an increase of one serving over last year.

“We are also continually working to decrease fat and sodium content of our menu items,” Montz said.


A push toward whole grains


One of the larger “baby steps” Montz took upon assuming her position in 2008 was to eliminate a school cafeteria staple: the completely white, made-from-scratch dinner roll. An item labeled “white roll” continues to be offered occasionally, but it is now 20 percent whole wheat.

“Almost everything else is 60 percent whole wheat,” said Montz, noting that even items such as brownies are now made with mostly whole-wheat flour. Last year, in addition to introducing whole-wheat spaghetti and rolls, school cafeterias debuted brown rice as a side item and began using it in jambalaya. White rice continues to be served with gumbos, red beans and other dishes “where the children can see it,” Montz said.

The nutritionist also set out to increase students’ consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables by offering these foods in their raw state at least three times a week, in addition to serving them daily in their more traditional cooked, canned and frozen forms. Observing that most children will gobble up raw veggies when given a small tub of ranch dressing, Montz added sliced cucumbers to the usual rotation of carrots, celery, broccoli and cauliflower.

“I had quite a few managers say, ‘Kids aren’t gonna like cucumber slices,’ but the response was just overwhelming. The kids just loved them,” Montz said. “Everybody was running out of cucumbers!”


Meal costs kept in check


Although School Food and Nutrition Services operates under the umbrella of the archdiocese, Catholic schools are not required to enroll in the federally sponsored meal program and are free to contract with private caterers. However, enrollment offers numerous benefits. Outside caterers do not have to follow the USDA’s nutritional guidelines and can obtain some of their menu items from fast-food companies. Because they are for-profit entities, they also tend to pass on their overhead costs at the register.

“Because we’re getting the government food commodities and the federal reimbursements, we’re able to keep our prices low,” Montz said, noting that the local price of the federally sponsored school lunch has never risen above $2.

“We train our cooks and bakers so that many of our menu items can be made from scratch,” adds Montz. Small schools typically offer a hot-line meal five days a week and a sandwich option once a week, while the majority of schools provide a hot line meal and a sandwich line meal every day.

Larger schools are equipped to offer a wide variety of options, including smoothies, fruit and yogurt parfaits, fruit, cheese and vegetable trays, po-boys, pre-made salads, salad and baked potato bars and personal pan pizzas. A monthly “students’ choice” day allows diners to vote for their favorite entrée, with the unlikely shepherd’s pie regularly making the cut.


Nutrition educator


Montz, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in dietetics from Southeastern Missouri State University, said her interest in childhood and teenage nutrition was piqued during a Tulane internship at School Food and Nutrition Services. She said “chili day” was her favorite day at school because the cafeteria served “these great, big cinnamon rolls that were just amazing.”

“School lunch has always had this negative stigma – you go in and there’s the lunch lady giving you mystery meat,” she chuckled. “I had no idea how in-depth school lunch really is. There’s so much planning that’s involved to make sure that all the (nutritional) components are met.”

As the archdiocese’s chief nutrition educator, Montz is available to speak to entire student bodies or specific age groups, and coordinates nutrition-based contests and promotions, including the popular “Fuel Up to Play 60” physical fitness program. She and her staff conduct food surveys, taste-testings and a monthly “Nutrition Day” at participating cafeterias in which free samples of a spotlighted fruit or vegetable are available to all.

“For the most part, the students are generally pretty happy with the food, but then you’ll get requests for things like ribs and steaks and sushi and things that we just can’t afford,” Montz said. “At a lot of the schools, it’s the home-cooked, hot-line, made-from-scratch items that (students) like most – things like gumbo, red beans and chicken sauce piquante.”

Over the summer, cafeteria staff test-prepared new items or the coming school year, including spinach salad, a 60-percent-whole-wheat cinnamon bun, stewed chicken, chicken Alfredo, shrimp Monica and shrimp étoufée.

“Surprisingly, the raw shrimp that we were able to purchase this year came in cheaper than some of our beef items, so we’re getting to do more with shrimp, which is very exciting,” Montz said.

Another change may not be met with quite the same enthusiasm: This year Montz is requiring elementary school cafeterias to stop using frying as a cooking technique in the preparation of school breakfast and lunch. The one exception will be the frying of beignets every third Friday.

“Hopefully, that’s something that we stick with, but I’m not sure how that’s going to go down,” she said. “Last year a handful of elementary schools were still frying French fries, although many are baking them now.”

Beth Donze can be reached at


The skinny on school meals


Number of participants: 60 Catholic elementary schools; 16 Catholic high schools; and 7 non-Catholic schools


Average daily participation: 3,100 students for breakfast; 24,000 for lunch


How many schools are enrolled in the National School Breakfast Program? 47 of the 83 participating schools, including 13 high schools


SOURCE: School Food and Nutrition Services of New Orleans



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