By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — At Mankato Area Public Schools, the idea of what lunch is remains a concept that is in flux.
Case in point: At the beginning of the year, new guidelines put in place for schools by the Food and Drug Administration prompted the schools to shrink the size of the hamburger patties to 2 ounces, an ounce less than the burgers were the previous spring.
“We got feedback from parents,” said Ron Schirmers, food service director at Mankato schools. “You can’t take a senior high football player and feed him the same as a seventh-grader who doesn’t play sports. We were getting some calls that said, ‘My kid’s not getting enough to eat.’”
Mid-year, with the blessing of the FDA — which was flexible and willing to listen to parents and school concerns — the size of those burger patties was bumped back up to 21⁄2 ounces.
That change illustrates how the school district’s menu is a work in progress but definitely heading down the road to helping students eat more healthful lunches.
Students saw a lot of changes in their menu this year. In addition to the different burger patties, they were greeted last fall with a lot more fruits and vegetable than they’ve ever seen, and a significant decrease in some things they’d seen on a regular basis.
More carrots have been on the menu. Sweet potatoes have been on the menu. Romaine lettuce has been more frequent in place of iceberg. French fries have become scarce. And Schirmers said that students appear to like it.
“We haven’t had any complaints at all,” he said.
The FDA put in place calorie limits on lunches. For students K-5, the calorie limit was 350-500. For grades 6-8, 400-550. And in grades 9-12, 450-600. Because of those limits, some of the work-around solutions available to hungry students were gone.
Schirmers said that, in previous years, students who finished their meal and were still hungry had access to peanut butter and bread. The calorie limits, however, have removed that option. This was part of what some parents had complained about.
Erin Gonzalez, a dietitian with the Mankato Clinic who works with the school district on its menu, said the complaints she heard about came from parents of high school students who probably should have been taking a more active role in what their students were eating.
“School lunch isn’t meant to fuel all day long; it’s one meal, and 650 calories is perfectly adequate for one meal,” she said.
Parents should be providing their student athletes with snacks between meals.
“You can’t expect school lunches to feed an athlete,” she said.
Schirmers said the big changes in the school lunch menu were implemented this year, and next year students won’t see much change. The school will continue to taste test new foods, though, and to teach kids about healthful eating.
“Our goal is to educate kids in the classrooms and in the cafeteria so they understand everything that’s available to them,” Gonzalez said.