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Amherst schools consider healthier cafeteria options

  • Sandy Aldrich, left, serves Amherst Regional High School first-year students Jakob Polmatier, right, and Emily Caballero, center, during their 30-minute period for lunch.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Sandy Aldrich, left, serves Amherst Regional High School first-year students Jakob Polmatier, right, and Emily Caballero, center, during their 30-minute period for lunch.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sandy Aldrich, left, serves Amherst Regional High School first-year Emily Caballero during her 30-minute period for lunch on Wednesday, September 19, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Sandy Aldrich, left, serves Amherst Regional High School first-year Emily Caballero during her 30-minute period for lunch on Wednesday, September 19, 2012.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sienna Pearson, who was having pizza and carrot sticksfor lunch recently, said “Some of the stuff here is OK, but a lot of it tastes fake,”<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Sienna Pearson, who was having pizza and carrot sticksfor lunch recently, said “Some of the stuff here is OK, but a lot of it tastes fake,”
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Regional High School junior Sienna Pearson's plate partway through a 30-minute lunch period on Wednesday, September 19, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Amherst Regional High School junior Sienna Pearson's plate partway through a 30-minute lunch period on Wednesday, September 19, 2012.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • About  55 percent of the students buy lunch in Amherst..<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    About 55 percent of the students buy lunch in Amherst..
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Regional High School freshman Marquise Suarez says he likes the choices the school offers for lunch.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Amherst Regional High School freshman Marquise Suarez says he likes the choices the school offers for lunch.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst, about 55 percent of students buy lunch.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Amherst, about 55 percent of students buy lunch.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Regional High School sophomore Finneas Scott.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Amherst Regional High School sophomore Finneas Scott.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Regional High School juniors Daniel Kamlarz and Sienna Pearson<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Amherst Regional High School juniors Daniel Kamlarz and Sienna Pearson
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Regional High School juniors Kate Schreiber, left, and Gloria Miller <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Amherst Regional High School juniors Kate Schreiber, left, and Gloria Miller
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Regional High School junior Daniel Kamlarz<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Amherst Regional High School junior Daniel Kamlarz
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Regional High School freshman Henry Kahan <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Amherst Regional High School freshman Henry Kahan
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sandy Aldrich, left, serves Amherst Regional High School first-year students Jakob Polmatier, right, and Emily Caballero, center, during their 30-minute period for lunch.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Sandy Aldrich, left, serves Amherst Regional High School first-year Emily Caballero during her 30-minute period for lunch on Wednesday, September 19, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Sienna Pearson, who was having pizza and carrot sticksfor lunch recently, said “Some of the stuff here is OK, but a lot of it tastes fake,”<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Amherst Regional High School junior Sienna Pearson's plate partway through a 30-minute lunch period on Wednesday, September 19, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • About  55 percent of the students buy lunch in Amherst..<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Amherst Regional High School freshman Marquise Suarez says he likes the choices the school offers for lunch.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Amherst, about 55 percent of students buy lunch.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Amherst Regional High School sophomore Finneas Scott.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Amherst Regional High School juniors Daniel Kamlarz and Sienna Pearson<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Amherst Regional High School juniors Kate Schreiber, left, and Gloria Miller <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Amherst Regional High School junior Daniel Kamlarz<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Amherst Regional High School freshman Henry Kahan <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

“Some of the stuff here is OK, but a lot of it tastes fake,” she said. “These don’t actually taste like carrots and they look like plastic. You can taste the packaging in the sandwich meats. A friend of mine calls it ‘prison food.’ ”

On the other side of the cafeteria, sophomore Finneas Scott has brought his own lunch of cheese, crackers and a granola bar. He doesn’t want to spend $2.75 — the cost of school lunch — each day. And he doesn’t want to wait in the cafeteria line to get his food, he said.

High school students everywhere have complained about cafeteria food for a long time. But now more adults are paying attention — and pushing for healthier and more locally produced food.

Over the past three years, Michelle Obama has made fresh, healthy food for children one of her main priorities as first lady. Many schools in Massachusetts have undertaken a campaign to provide better, fresher lunches. As of last spring, 230 public school districts in the state were buying food directly from 114 farmers, said Kelly Erwin of Amherst, director of the state’s Farm to School Project, which seeks to promote greater use of local agricultural resources in schools.

“When you serve healthy, fresh, local foods, it’s a way to make sure students at all income levels have access to the same high quality,” she said.

Amherst has a contract with Whitsons Culinary Group, a food service company, to provide school lunches. The contract will expire at the end of the year, and Superintendent Maria Geryk said she wants to explore the options before awarding a new contract.

“I want to think about how we can continue to provide healthy options and limit access to things with high sugar content,” she said. “We can create healthy, good-tasting meals kids will enjoy, and I’d like to move to having homemade soups, salad bars and a wider array of fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Many unimpressed

In a well-functioning school lunch program, Erwin said, between 70 and 80 percent of the students buy lunch instead of bringing it from home. In Amherst, about 55 percent of students buy lunch, said Rebecca Trietley, the food service director.

At last week’s open house at Crocker Farm School, the Bulletin interviewed eight parents at random, and all eight said they send lunch to school with their children.

“The cafeteria lunches don’t feel healthy enough, and I’d like to see more fresh produce,” said Justyne Ogdahl. “Then I think my daughter would eat it. She says the lunch doesn’t look very good. I’d like to see more variety and more things like hummus and carrots.”

Geryk said a lot of parents and community members talk to her about food in the schools. It’s not just cafeteria food they’re concerned about, she said, but also cupcakes at in-class birthday parties and fundraising bake sales.

“This is a huge issue for families to have parents not know what kids are putting into their bodies at school,” she said.

The cafeteria operation receives a subsidy from the school budget and usually runs at a deficit, according to Geryk. Still, she said she could justify spending more money to give students better choices and more local food.

“It’s never easy to provide healthy, good-tasting food and stay within a budget,” she said. “But I do think there are ways to be more creative and still have things taste good. We should have less processed sugar, and maybe have nonfat frozen yogurt or sherbet instead of ice cream.”

Some parents have criticized the practice of having cakes in classrooms whenever a child has a birthday. “Do we want our kids eating cupcakes multiple times a week? I don’t,” Geryk said.

The elementary schools are phasing out bake sales because of concerns over food allergies and the fact that not all children can afford to buy the goods, Geryk said.

She met this week with John Gerber, a University of Massachusetts professor and local-food advocate who has received grant money to plant vegetable gardens at the elementary schools. She said she would like to grow food for the cafeteria in a school garden.

A state law passed in 2010 allows school districts to buy up to 20 percent of their food directly from farmers without going out to bid, Erwin said. Although it is less complicated to buy local produce when a district operates its own food service, it’s possible when using an outside company, she said.

“A district could write into the bid specs that they reserve the right to go outside the contract to buy directly from local agricultural producers,” she said.

Healthier choices and local food could increase the percentage of students who buy lunch, Erwin said. “The districts that are doing the best with their finances are those with very high participation,” she said.

Effort under way

At Hopkins Academy in Hadley, food service coordinator Diane Zak has started offering deli sandwiches, soups and a salad bar. For the past two years the school has served hamburgers and cheeseburgers only once a month.

“We found if you give them healthier options, they will take those,” Zak said. “If you put a burger out there, they’ll take that.”

In cooler weather, Hopkins students can choose homemade soups, such as chicken noodle and broccoli and cheddar, Zak said. The school buys potatoes and squash from a Hadley farm, fruits and vegetables from a Hatfield farm, and greens such as lettuce, spinach and kale from an Amherst farm, she said. Last April, she met with farmers to advise them on seed selection based on what she planned to buy for the Hopkins salad bar, she said.

The school administration has supported the campaign to improve students’ nutrition even though it costs more to provide higher-quality food, Zak said. Lunches in Hadley cost $2.50.

Parent Jennifer Lapis said she’s working with Zak on a grant for equipment to make smoothies in the cafeteria. Zak brings some of the salad bar ingredients from her own garden, Lapis said.

In addition, Hopkins is seeking to arrange field trips in which students would help bag the lettuce for the salad bar, she said. “The next step is to make lunch educational,” she said.

The Amherst lunch operation buys fruits and vegetables from a Hatfield farmer. It has also introduced reduced-sugar cereals and whole wheat pasta, and orders ketchup that does not contain high-fructose corn syrup, said Trietley. The salads are premade, which she considers more sanitary than salad bars, she said.

“The burgers are popular, and no one has suggested eliminating them,” she said.

The Chicopee schools have been buying local food in season for six years, Erwin said. “The cafeteria manager has learned how to encourage students to try new foods and eat healthy things in ways that kids feel good about,” she said.

The manager there sends produce home to parents along with recipes, puts on a community harvest meal every fall and holds raffles to promote local foods, Erwin said. The Chicopee schools buy berries in bulk when they’re in season and then freeze them for later use, she said.

Back at the ARHS cafeteria, about half the students are eating burgers, pizza, nachos and burritos, while the other students eat food from home.

Junior Daniel Kamlarz said the pizza doesn’t taste like real pizza and the lettuce doesn’t taste fresh. He’d also like to see kosher alternatives, he said. Freshman Marquise Suarez said he is happy with the choices, but junior Kate Schreiber said she’s never bought lunch in the cafeteria.

“It’s healthier for me if I can choose what I eat and know where it’s from,” she said.

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