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Perham, New York Mills schools move toward healthier meal program

With federal guidelines pushing for wholesome lunches, area schools are trying to find healthy alternatives that kids will still like to eat.

Take pizza as an example: to fit the guidelines, the crust must be made from whole wheat and the toppings need to have a lower fat and sodium content.

Making it that way, and still keeping it tasty, is the trick.

The guidelines do not become mandatory until 2014, but area schools have been slowly adjusting their menus over the past two years to get a jump on things.

Both Perham and New York Mills school districts are already where they need to be on sodium levels, and both have switched to the required milk type (fat free or 1 percent).

Both districts will also increase their fruit and vegetable serving sizes again, and will offer students extra servings of vegetables at no extra charge.

This year, NY Mills School will complete the switch from half whole grain to completely whole grain. Last year, the kitchen was still mixing in white pastas. Perham already is at full whole grain.

Regulations also call for legumes, or beans, to be offered at least once a week. And carbohydrates and meat servings will be limited.

For the first time, the serving sizes will also be adjusted to meet calorie needs depending on age level: kindergarten through fifth grade meals must be between 550-650 calories, sixth through eighth grade between 600-700 calories, and ninth through 12th between 750-850 calories.

Both districts are trying to meet all these regulations, while offering options that still taste good.

New York Mills food service supervisor, Anj Wiirre, said in an interview recently that chicken patties are not all the same - things like texture differ among brands. And though she knows she won't satisfy everyone's taste, she does try different brands until she finds one that most people like. She also tries to put the known favorites, like beef nachos, on the menu a couple of times a month.

The Perham district is partnering with Chartwells Food Service again to plan menus and manage the kitchen.

The NY Mills kitchen worked with Chartwells last year, but after high unexpected costs, the district decided to hire its own kitchen staff again.

NY Mills School is also taking part in a shared dietician program through Lakes Country Service Cooperative.

For 25 days throughout the school year, or 2.5 days a month, the dietician will be on hand to assist with the planning of menus to assure that nutritional requirements are being met, as well as all reports and records completed.

The dietician will also assist with menu adaptations for special diets. With a peanut allergy, or dairy allergy, for example, the kitchen will try to find alternatives that will fit the diet. The dietician's services cost $395 a day.

School lunches in both Perham and NY Mills will continue to offer multiple entrees per meal - one usually being a salad bar. As in the past, breakfast will be free for elementary students.

Although federal guidelines require schools to offer more fruits and vegetables, the fact remains that kids don't always eat them.

"I'm like their aunt," Wiirre said. "Always telling them to 'eat your vegetables.'"