MANCHESTER — Changes could be coming to the city’s school lunch menu, including the return of bagel and submarine sandwiches, as well as the addition of “ethnic cooking” options.
District Food Services Director Jim Connors told the Board of School Committee Monday that several changes were being considered following the relaxation of federal rules governing school meal programs.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which underwrites the cost of school meal programs around the country, eliminated a cap on the amount of meat and grains allowable in a single meal under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
Aimed at improving the eating habits of students and reducing obesity, the program has also drawn critics, including members of the city school board, who say it’s led to unpalatable meals.
Connors stressed that school meals still had to comply with limits on calories, saturated fat and sodium. But he said removing the restriction on meat and grain content would allow for more flexibility in the menu.
“This has allowed us to restore bagel sandwiches and sub sandwiches, and allowed for the addition of cheese without reducing the meat portion,” Connors said.
Connors said that other changes are being considered pending a nutritional analysis of the district’s current menu.
“Changes in portion size and menu offerings will be made, and costs will be evaluated,” he said.
He added that his department has recently conducted taste tests for new food items at Beech Street Elementary School, and that it has offered “ethnic cooking training” for its staff.
“We’ll be adding some of those (dishes) to accommodate the preferences of Manchester’s diverse population,” Connors said.
Connors’ presentation was favorably received by the board, however, Connors faced questions from Ward 10 board member John Avard, who has been the chief critic of the district’s cafeteria offerings. Avard had requested the presentation from Connors in light of the federal rule changes.
In response to a question from Avard, Connors confirmed that students were required to take a vegetable or fruit with their meal as a condition of having the meal reimbursed by the USDA. Avard and other board members have noted that students routinely toss unwanted fruits and vegetables in the trash.
Sue Sheehy, the district’s consultant dietitian, insisted that students couldn’t be “forced” to take the fruit or vegetables. “We can only encourage,” she said.
Sheehy maintained that the healthier menus were catching on, despite media reports to the contrary. “At the elementary level, they’re really embracing it. They’re learning the way you’re supposed to eat.
We’re hearing from the public,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s gotten a lot of bad press.”
Sheehy added, “We’re a learning environment; we’re teaching kids how they should be eating. We hope they’re developing an appreciation for having fruits and veggies.”