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Spokane, Coeur d’Alene schools adjust lunch menus

Warehouse clerk Mark Hilborn gathers food items to be delivered to schools in Spokane on Friday. (Kathy Plonka)
Warehouse clerk Mark Hilborn gathers food items to be delivered to schools in Spokane on Friday. (Kathy Plonka)

Some schools on the East Coast have made headlines by announcing plans to bypass federal healthy-lunch program guidelines, but Inland Northwest school districts are forging ahead.

Spokane Public Schools is removing tater tots and hot dogs from elementary school lunches, and kids will be offered new recipes using baby red potatoes this year. The Coeur d’Alene School District will serve fewer tater tots and hot dogs and add more roasted vegetables.

“Most of the moves we’ve made have not been insurmountable,” said Spokane Public Schools nutrition services director Doug Wordell, who does not expect a revolt over the lack of tater tots.

“Elementary school is a good place to start,” he said.

The National School Lunch Program introduced new requirements last fall that districts offer healthier options, including whole foods, more fruits and vegetables, baked rather than fried options and calorie limits by age group.

Schools jettisoning the federal guidelines are in wealthier districts that don’t rely on government subsidies to pay for a majority of food costs, according to published reports.

“We lost about 1 percent of participation last year, and I don’t have one thing I can point at, but we have had some complaints about the portion size in high schools due to a 750-850 calorie maximum per meal,” Wordell said. The loss translates into around $100,000, a modest amount for the district, he said. Because 57 percent of its students are on the free and reduced-price meal program, the district still benefits by participating.

“We have to work hard though to continue to grow the program and market to our students,” Wordell said. “The guidelines have good intents.”

Other changes in Spokane Public Schools’ meals program include no chocolate milk with breakfast, no cereals with more than 6 grams of sugar, fewer french fries in elementary and middle schools, more legume and bean salads, more homemade sauces and no more popcorn chicken.

“Our theme has been fresh foods, whole foods, and we want to connect kids and families to where the food comes from,” Wordell said. “We put whole chicken back on the menu, legs and thighs, so when the children say, ‘It has bones,’ we can say, ‘Why yes, chickens have bones.’ ”

Nutrition directors have the option of customizing menus. Coeur d’Alene School District, for example, took an approach that emphasizes moderation. Fewer less-healthy items will be served and more whole grains, and some substitutions.

Items will be made with more spices and herbs to reduce sodium, fresh potatoes will be substituted for processed french fries, and breakfast cereals will have less sugar, said Ed Ducar, nutrition services director.

“It’s not: This is bad, don’t have that,” he said. “It’s more of a moderation philosophy. Part of this is healthy eating and part is what’s realistic in your life.”

Said Wordell, “I have no doubt the nutrition we model will impact the kids for their lifetime.”