Sunny McGowan, a student at Fairview Elementary School, chooses between several different fresh fruits during lunch Tuesday. Carroll Community School District has added salad and fresh fruit bars at all four of its buildings to improve the nutritional quality of meals served to students.
Sunny McGowan, a student at Fairview Elementary School, chooses between several different fresh fruits during lunch Tuesday. Carroll Community School District has added salad and fresh fruit bars at all four of its buildings to improve the nutritional quality of meals served to students.
January 15, 2014

The sound of the bell pierces the halls, the universal signal that releases students to their next class period.

At Fairview Elementary, the young students line up and make their way to the cafeteria where they are greeted by a 6-foot-long salad bar and 8-foot-long fruit bar. The spread features at least 13 different fruits and vegetables including lettuce, cherry tomatoes, carrots, fresh apples, grapes and watermelon.

The salad bars were added to each of the Carroll Community School District's four buildings two years ago. The additions were the result of the district's interpretation of new rules implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2012 in an effort to make school meals more healthful. At the beginning of January, the USDA permanently relaxed some of these guidelines - specifically the daily maximums for grains and meat or meal alternatives, said Sara Nielsen, food service director for the Carroll school district.

The original changes were aimed at limiting fat and salt, reducing portion sizes and increasing fruits and vegetables. According to recent studies, more than 31 million children across the U.S. receive free or reduced-price lunches, and these low-income students are often most at-risk for becoming overweight or obese. In the Carroll district, nearly 40 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches through the federal program.

The grain and protein restrictions were loosened amid complaints that portion sizes and calorie limits - 550-650 for kindergarten through fifth grade, 600-700 for sixth through eighth grades, and 750-850 for high school students - were leaving children hungry. Nielsen said these claims are exaggerated - 850 calories is more than enough for a filling lunch - but acknowledged it could be challenging to incorporate the full amount of calories due to the grain restriction.

Students in kindergarten through fifth grade were allowed eight or nine grain servings per week, students in sixth through eighth were allowed eight to 10 servings, and high school students were allowed 10 to 12 grain servings each week. Typical grains in school lunches include hamburger buns, which count for two servings, and cookies, which count for one serving each.

For the younger children, these restrictions often meant they could not have dessert, explained Nielsen. After accounting for grain servings in buns and breaded chicken products, there were no grain servings left for a cookie, even if Nielsen had used only 600 of the allowed 650 calories for the day. Similar limits on protein meant the younger students often could not receive cheese to put on their hamburgers.

In the high school lunch line, students have more than one option. The traditional school lunch is offered, but students have typically had a second choice, such as a sub sandwich. However, the sub bun has more bread than a hamburger bun and therefore counts as three grain servings rather than two. The grain restrictions implemented two years ago meant that subs could no longer be offered as an alternative meal every day because if students had a sub every day, they would consume 15 grain servings, three more than the maximum allowance, even though the calorie count would fall within the required range, explained Nielsen.

With grain restrictions preventing Nielsen from adding the extra bread stick to bring the calorie count on a day's lunch up to the maximum, she said the Carroll district could have received similar complaints if it had not made the decision to add unlimited vegetable and fruit bars at each building. Students may return to the refrigerated bars and refill their plates until they are no longer hungry.

The addition of the fruit and vegetable bars to the cafeterias has also had the added benefit of reducing waste, explained Nielsen.

The same USDA rules that implemented the grain restriction and calorie counts also required her to put on the menu one green vegetable, one starchy potato, one red or orange vegetable, one bean and one other vegetable per week. The rules also require each meal to include one bread, protein, fruit, vegetable and milk. Students are only required to take three items as they pass through the line.

When the dark green vegetable choices consist of kale, collared greens, spinach and broccoli, it's not very likely children will take the vegetable, and even less likely they will eat it, said Nielsen. But, since the schools have salad bars - which include red and orange vegetables such as cherry tomatoes or carrots, dark green vegetables such as broccoli and additional vegetables such as cucumbers and lettuce - the students are allowed to pass on a vegetable they won't eat and take a different vegetable they will eat from the salad bar instead.

"It was our interpretation of the rules that you have to offer each of the vegetables in a salad bar or menu it," Nielsen said. "If you put it in the salad bar, you are offering it every day. You don't have to menu it and then have kids say they were hungry because they didn't eat it. We offered it, so we were still compliant."

By offering rather than serving food, students are encouraged to take only what they will eat, and to eat what they take, said Nielsen. As a result, the cooks can fix six cans of baked beans instead of 18 cans. The money saved on the 12 cans of beans that are no longer prepared can be used to supply fresh produce for the fruit and vegetable bars, and the food is actually eaten, not thrown away.

"We're able to make less. All kids take a fruit, but we're not putting one fruit on their tray and watching it go to the dumpster," said Nielsen. "We find we're offering better things but spending less money. It's sickening to watch all that stuff go down the garbage disposal. Now the plates are pretty clean."

In addition, the bars allow the school to provide fresh fruit, such as strawberries, watermelon, grapes or kiwi, in additional to the traditional canned varieties such as pears, peaches or fruit cocktail. Nielsen has observed elementary students returning to the vegetables up to three times in a single lunch period. But, though students appear to be eating more, the reduction in waste means the food cost has not increased, said Nielsen.

"A lot of (school officials) think kids would overeat or waste a salad bar, but we don't see that," said Nielsen, who has about $2.10 to spend on each meal. "They aren't eating you out of house and home."

According to district business manager Gary Bengtson, the initial cost for the refrigerated salad bars was $4,750 per building. The district also purchased a new oven for Adams Elementary last year. In the last two years, expenditures in the food-service budget have increased about $125,000 while revenue has increased about $105,000. Bengston said these equipment purchases contributed to this gap but added that the costs were "well worth it."

"(The fruit and vegetable bars) have been very popular, especially at the elementary level where in the past they had little or no options," said Bengtson in an email. "To see those young kids returning to the salad bar over and over has been amazing to me."

Though the USDA has removed its grain and protein restrictions, the school district will not change its fruit and vegetable policy, said Nielsen.

"Kids are eating more fruits and vegetables this way," she said, adding that the heavy emphasis on health in the last two years has made it easier to buy good foods, such as whole-grain breaded chicken patties that contain nine grams of carbohydrates instead of 25. "I do truly believe lunches are healthier."


Carroll takes second place in breakfast challenge

Carroll Community School District recently took second place in the state among schools with enrollments of 900-3,999 students in the Iowa School Breakfast Challenge.

The contest website said students with empty stomachs "often lack concentration and struggle with poor academic performance, behavior problems and health issues."

However, only about one-third of students who qualified for free and reduced-price lunches also eat breakfast, making Iowa 49th in the nation for breakfast participation. According to the Iowa Department of Education website, the department partnered with the Midwest Dairy Council to challenge schools to change that ranking by increasing their breakfast participation by at least 20 percent.

The contest had four tiers based on enrollment. In the third tier, Carroll took second place, receiving $2,500 in award money for increasing breakfast participation 27 percent by providing three breakfast choices instead of one, including one hot meal.

District food services director Sara Nielsen said that the prize money would be put back into the program.

Carroll fell only 1 percent behind the first-place winner, Shenandoah Community School District.

In the first tier of schools with enrollments less than 350 students, the East Greene Community School District took first place, receiving $4,000 in prize money.

According to the breakfast challenge website results page, the district increased participation in its breakfast program by 100 percent through promotion of the program in the school district, on the website and on the radio. Officials also work to build relationships with the students to "invite and encourage them to eat breakfast with them."