Megan Hartshorne, Melissa Manning and Debra Appel of the nutrition department at Laguna Beach Unified School District. (Don Leach, Coastline Pilot / August 21, 2013)

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Portion control and preparing more food in-house are on the menu for Laguna Beach Unified School District nutrition staff as the start of the school year nears.

In response to a drop in lunch purchases and a change in the maximum entree size, the nutrition department, under the guidance of food services director Debra Appel, has spent the summer crafting menus, securing vendors and planning how they will serve food to students. The department will present ideas to the school board at Tuesday's board meeting.

According to the district, students purchased fewer lunches in all but two months from September through June last year compared to the 2011-12 school year.

Staff is also making changes to its menu based on new U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines. In December, the department lifted guidelines that limited the ounces of protein and grains in entrees served at schools.

"The [former guidelines] decreased entree sizes and made it difficult for kids [particularly older ones] to get enough calories and food to fill them and get them through the school day," registered dietitian Megan Hartshorne, who is contracted with the district, wrote in an email.

The USDA placed a maximum ounce limit on meals in hopes of combating childhood obesity, but main dishes were too small for some children, Hartshorne said.

"We had a hard time fitting a sandwich on the menu because a slice of bread would put us over the limit," Hartshorne said. "There was so much backlash nationwide from nutrition departments and especially students that the USDA released the maximum caps by December."

The district's nutrition department is also working on how to limit hoarding when outside vendors bring food onto campus, particularly at Laguna Beach High School, as parents reported at a board meeting earlier this year.

Parents were concerned that the first few students in line take a majority of the food, leaving little for those remaining in line.

Last year Mandarin King brought food, including orange chicken, to the high school twice, said Shannon Soto, the district's fiscal services director.

Hartshorne suggested placing the food in take-out containers as a possible solution.

"The last child in line needs the same option as the first person in line," Hartshorne said.

Another issue: If there are too many kids in line, there isn't enough time to serve them all, said school board member Jan Vickers, whose youngest child graduated from Laguna Beach High School in 2010.

"I don't believe we have as many issues at the elementary schools because they [children] order their lunch ahead of time and a lot of students like to bring their lunch," Vickers said during a phone interview.

Vickers said it's important to gain feedback from high school students on accessibility and quality of menu items.

Hartshorne and Melissa Manning, another registered dietitian under district contract, filled in for Appel during her four-month medical leave earlier this year.

Hartshorne and Manning tweaked menus to align with new federal standards, which include placing both a vegetable and fruit on the plate, along with a protein and grain.

"Megan has been so proactive with taste tests," including a quinoa salad she tried out at the schools, Soto said.

Just the exposure to a certain dish helps children learn to make decisions and engage with their food choices.

"Some kids were familiar with it," Soto said of the quinoa dish. "They either loved it or they didn't. When we put it on the menu, there's that recognition of, 'Oh, I tried it, but didn't like it.'"

Another goal for the upcoming year is offering more "clean label" foods, which have minimal-to-zero additives and no artificial food colorings, Hartshorne .

The school board approved a contract with Gold Star foods, which sells only products that meet federal nutrition guidelines, which will help streamline ordering, Soto said.

Laguna Beach Unified is following the USDA's menu planning, Hartshorne said, which allows the nutrition department to choose five items from four categories: meat and meat alternate, vegetables and fruits, grains and breads, and milk.

Portion sizes increase among age groups, according to a USDA document about the plan. For example, the minimum amount of a lean meat, poultry or fish for students in kindergarten through third grade is 1 1/2 ounces; a single serving size for students in seventh through 12th grade is 3 ounces.

The food plan also emphasizes fruits and vegetables, with a requirement of two or more servings of each, the document says.

The specific fruit or vegetable must change, too, according to Hartshorne.

"We can't offer baby carrots every day," she said.

Hartshorne plans to visit schools and hold taste tests, conduct student surveys and pick nutrition workers' brains to gauge students' likes and dislikes and gather information on which foods sell.

The USDA's ChooseMyPlate website offers a wealth of information about different food groups and making healthy choices.