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USDA praises menu offered by Gainesville schools
Only system to be recognized in Southeast
Emilia Avila moves trays of chili cheese wraps onto the food serving lines.

Gainesville Middle School students typically have three meal options — for example, they may get to select from a chili cheese wrap, a salad or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a cheese stick.

Those come accompanied by fruits and vegetables.

“We’ve got fresh tomatoes and carrots, which will be raw,” said Donna Peron, the school’s cafeteria manager. “And we’ve also got steamed, fresh broccoli.”

The middle school student plates may soon be a lot more familiar to pupils in a wider area, as the city school system’s menus were the only ones chosen in the Southeast region by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as its menu plan example for the summer nutrition program.

“It’s going to be their best practice module for 2014,” said Penny Fowler, Gainesville City Schools nutrition program director. “Which is huge, because we’ve had so many changes in the meal pattern and we’ve got it down to a science.

“It’s a lot of work to write a menu now.”

Since 2010, school meals have undergone some major changes, all designed to ensure students have more whole grains and a variety of fruits and vegetables on their plates.

Schools have also been charged with ensuring students are ingesting less fat and sodium.

Each age group has specific requirements, such as for caloric and sodium intake.

There’s a minimum amount of grains and meats that have to be served daily; throughout the week, the schools have to hit a target of dark green vegetables, red/orange vegetables, legumes, starchy vegetables or “other” vegetables like cabbage.

“It’s a lot of planning,” Gainesville School Nutrition Coordinator Emily House said. “And all the while we have to serve within a set number of calories. And for breakfast and for lunch, our meals can be no more than 10 percent total calories from saturated fat, and there’s also sodium requirements. And absolutely no trans fat is permitted in our meals.”

The sample Gainesville menu selected by the USDA was developed by House for the department’s Seamless Summer program.

The program opens locations throughout the month of June — including Gainesville Middle and Fair Street School — where children can eat breakfast and lunch for free.

For example, Wednesday’s lunch this June will be a chicken fajita burrito with salsa, refried beans, “ranchy” cauliflower and peaches. Breakfast that day is cheese toast and ham, scrambled eggs, cereal with toast, fruit juice and fresh sliced oranges.

School officials have found it’s hard to please finicky palates, but once children are exposed to more variety in their diets, they’re more open to trying new things.

“Chicken nuggets, chicken sandwiches, hamburgers, pizza,” Peron listed as being the favorites of students. “But for healthy foods they like the salad, and they like baby carrots a lot. We put those out with some no-fat ranch dressing.”

There are some strange hits and misses. The nutrition department once developed a “breakfast round,” which resembled a cookie with oatmeal and dried fruit in it. It was roundly rejected by students. Another rejection was a sweet potato souffle, which “tastes like dessert,” according to House.

Students mostly won’t eat sweet potato fries, either — but they will eat sweet potato “tots.” Kale is also a popular choice, especially in a salad with spinach.

“I would say the hardest thing is trying to find foods that the kids like but are also going to meet these requirements,” House said. “It’s interesting to see what kids will take.”