By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — When you’re at the Mankato East football game in a few weeks and you mosey on over at half-time to the concession stand to grab that hot dog and Coke, you may notice some changes in what’s available.
In addition to hot dogs, you might find yourself walking away with some string cheese or a cup of yogurt. Maybe an apple or pear. Perhaps a pouch of trail mix, a granola bar or some baked chips.
All the old stuff will be there, too. Just less of it.
It’s all part of Mankato Area Public Schools’ efforts to make food served under its auspices to be more healthful. Beyond concessions, changes have been happening steadily over the last few years to make school lunches heavier on fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Erin Gonzalez, a Mankato Clinic dietitian who advises the school district on nutrition and menu offerings, said this fall new benchmarks are in place that all schools must meet regarding the amount of fresh fruits and vegetable and whole grains that must be served weekly.
Mankato schools, however, have been meeting those benchmarks for a year already. Gonzalez said they’d already instituted a regimen of fresh fruits and vegetables daily.
The new rules state that, with fruit, juice can be served and counted as fruit as long as it is 100 percent juice. Canned fruit can be served as well, but only if it’s served in its own juice or light syrup.
Like fruits, vegetables must be served daily. Not only that, they must emphasize a variety of colors: dark greens such as romaine lettuce, reds and oranges such as sweet peppers or carrots.
The new guidelines also call for beans to be served weekly. Gonzalez said they’re trying to come up with creative ways to introduce them to the menu, such as serving refried beans with tacos, or concocting a black bean-based salsa.
Also, they’re experimenting with sweet potatoes, which are much more nutritious than regular potatoes. So far, between sweet potato fries and sweet potato tater tots, tots are winning out.
Putting vegetables on the menu is one thing. But as any parent knows, getting kids to eat them is quite another.
One thing schools have tried is an incentive program where kids monitor their fruit and vegetable intake. The class with the highest consumption level at the end of the year, then, receives a fruit smoothie party.
They’ve also done taste-testing in the cafeteria, giving kids fun ways to try foods — in particular vegetables — that they’ve maybe never tried before, such as broccoli or peppers. Posters near the lunch line inform students about the changes, and Gonzalez teaches a class for both parents and students about enhancing their family’s nutrition and eating habits.
The changes to the school menu — which also include dramatic reductions in sodium — are being done in accordance with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010 and updated in January. Compliance in the school cafeteria is mandatory.
Compliance at the concession stand, however, is not. That’s a step Mankato schools have taken of their own volition.
The strategy is to decrease the variety of the junk food offered — such as offering one kind of Skittles instead of three — and mixing in more healthful foods such as yogurt, trail mix and fresh fruit.
“We’re really just trying to make sure that you can go to your student’s game and get something that’s healthier for you,” Gonzalez said.
To help parents decide, they plan to install signs at the high school concession stands showing where all concession stand food rates on the Hy-Vee NuVal scoring system. All food is graded. The more healthful a snack item is, the higher its score. To encourage people to choose from that menu, those foods will be at reduced prices this year.
It might be easier to implement all these changes now versus 10 years ago, Gonzalez said. There seems to be more support out there.
“I think healthier living is a focus people are tying to get to, but they don’t necessarily know how,” she said. “Or, they’re finding all these barriers in their life that make it harder. Unhealthy choices are often the easiest choices. So we’re trying to make the healthy choices easy.”