April 14. 2013 10:39PM

To comply with federal rules, NH schools work to make fruit, veggies more enticing

Union Leader Correspondent

The Pinkerton Academy cafeteria includes an assortment of fresh fruits to meet federal nutrition guidelines. (ADAM SWIFT PHOTO)

Across the state, school districts are still battling the problem of kids throwing away school lunches due to new federal nutritional guidelines requiring more fresh fruits and vegetables.

The federal changes have had another effect in Derry, which has more students running a negative balance in their lunch account this year. Derry school district Business Director Jane Simard said the rules no longer allow cash registers at the front of the lunch line. Students who owe money - once offered a cheese sandwich instead of the lunch of the day - now appear at the end of a line with a full tray.

"The cashiers do not want to pull the trays of the kids and make them get an alternate lunch," Simard said. "We don't want the child to be embarrassed."

Currently, Derry's school lunch program has about $5,500 in outstanding debt for the year; that compares to $1,000 last year. The school lunch program is not paid for through taxes, but through the money charged for the lunches, as well as some federal reimbursement.

"Whatever the parents owe, the district has to repay to the program," Simard said. "For our part, we work really hard to make contact with the parents so as not to embarrass the children in the lunch line."

Superintendent Laura Nelson noted that Simard and the food services staff often have to call parents who are in debt to the program, and that the parents are not always pleasant about it.

"This is not meant to be punitive," she said. "We just want to let them know that their accounts are in arrears and let them know that the program is self-sufficient."

Nelson said it would be difficult to keep the school lunch program afloat if the majority of accounts were $30 to $50 in debt.

"If everyone did that, we would not be able to support the lunch program," she said. "We are just trying to maintain a lunch program."

Hooksett, Salem

Hooksett Director of Nutrition Services Roberta Tarsia said the key is keep parents informed if a student's account has fallen behind.

"We encourage families to take advantage of our online payment option, which includes the ability to be informed by email when their student's account is getting low," she said. "Our negative balances across the district have not increased. We never deny a student a meal because of a negative balance."

In Salem, Barbara Schultz, the food services director, said the district does serve an alternate lunch to students who no longer have funds in their accounts; the lunch meets the federal nutritional requirements.

"A student is never and has never been denied a meal due to lack of funds," she said.

Fruits and veggies

At the Pinkerton Academy cafeteria in Derry, signs posted on the register point out that students must select a fresh fruit or vegetable with their lunch entree.

"At the beginning of the school year, there was an increase in the waste of fruits and vegetables because they were mandatory as part of the reimbursable meal," said Pinkerton Academy Food Services Director Sue Gerges. As the year has progressed, Gerges said the key to cutting down on waste has been providing more options.

"Some days, we prepare up to 16 different kinds of veggies, juice, and fruit, and (the students) seemed to be more interested," Gerges said. "There is still some waste, but much less."

Schultz said she has seen a similar trend in Salem.

"Earlier in the fall, at the beginning of school, there were unhappy students who did not like the new food offerings," she said. "More recently, we are seeing a turnaround and there has been an increase in student participation over the fall participation in the food service program."

The key has been keeping communication open with students to help identify which choices they like and do not like, she said.

In Hooksett, while there have been improvements in getting students to eat healthier, Tarsia said, there is still some way to go.

"Like many other school districts across the country, we do see a lot of waste as a result of students being required to change the way they think about their school lunch choices," she said. "It will take time for kids to change their eating habits."

How the students eat at home has a big influence on their willingness to try new, healthier options, she said.

"Our job as lunch providers is to find creative ways to make the healthier choices appealing," Tarsia said. "The educational piece is also essential, so that kids understand and embrace the benefits of healthier eating habits."

Lisa Dollins, director of food services for the Bedford schools, said her district has been working on wellness programs and providing healthier lunch options since at least 2007.

"Our district has really had very little problem and there has been no change in the number of students throwing out food," she said. "In fact, we've seen improvements in the students making healthier choices."