2015-09-10 / Life in Leelanau

Fed food guidelines present challenge

Calorie counting dampens creativity
By Jay Bushen Of The Enterprise staff

Dave Ruszel sounds more like a mathematician than a food service director as he combs through a spreadsheet full of guidelines and describes the most taxing part of his job.

Ruszel has been in the game for 15 years at Leland Public Schools but it’s been a challenge to play by the set of 2012 rules determined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which funds the school lunch program.

Calorie calculation has been a big part of the transition. Long gone are the days of sports drinks and potato chips — even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are off limits.

Out of necessity, Ruszel’s weekly menus are designed formulaically.

“Our hands are tied,” he said.

Ruszel said federal regulations have become less strict since 2012, although students still remember the initial transition.

Unfortunately for him and others in the industry, whole-grain chips haven’t been as popular as Doritos once were. The changes stymied his creativity.

DAVE RUSZEL was excited about returning to work this week. DAVE RUSZEL was excited about returning to work this week. “When I took over 15 years ago, we didn’t serve soda pop at all,” he said. “There were a lot of things that we were already doing, but this really limited a lot of the choices that we had.”

USDA nutrition standards state the average amount of lunch-time calories consumed by students per day is 550-650 calories for elementary schoolers, 600-700 calories for middle school students and 750-850 calories for high schoolers.

Other requirements, like sodium reduction strategies and portion size limits for meat, also have made things difficult.

The trick is portion size management — and arithmetic preparation — which is easier said than done.

“A lot of the things they want them to eat, or the amounts they want them to eat, are too much for little kids or too little for older kids,” he said. “There’s no leeway. They’re not guidelines — it’s the law.”

Ruszel is especially under the microscope this year as his menus will be reviewed by the USDA. A one-day Michigan Department of Education training session in Cadillac will help him prepare next month.

In the meantime, he’ll focus on doing the best he can to make USDA-approved meals that students will enjoy.

His plan for the first day of school was chicken stew with a biscuit, a “chef’s choice” potato soup, fresh fruit and a veggie bar.

Ruszel said 50-60 percent of his produce including apples, carrots and tomatoes come from local farmers such as Jim Bardenhagen or Nic Welty through a farm-to-school program.

“I’m going to start buying a lot more from them,” Ruszel said.

Locally grown fruits and veggies have been a hit at schools across the county.

Janis Groomes, 23-year food service director at Northport, has been using local produce for more than 10 years.

Groomes said students don’t like canned or frozen vegetables but they’ve been more than willing to try fresh fruit.

She said those types of nutritional preferences have to be grown from a young age, as early as preschool.

“They know what a quinoa grain is and they understand the veggie burger,” she said of Northport students. “That’s really nice to see.”

She said veggie burgers and the fruit and veggie bar have become hot commodities at Northport.

Peanuts, on the other hand, won’t come anywhere near students. Northport has become a nut-free school this year due to a student’s severe allergy.

“We’ve never had one that is quite this severe,” she said.

Groomes mentioned a focus on slashing sodium when asked about other changes to this year’s menu, as well as new bread product regulations.

All bread must be 51 percent whole grain — different than whole wheat, which is enriched.

“There can be no white bread, white crackers, nothing,” she said.

That’s just one more guideline Groomes, Ruszel and other calculator wielding food service directors must be aware of as students return to school this fall.

“Getting back into it is always a challenge with the new federal guidelines we have to adhere to,” Groomes said. “There are so many rules and regulations. It makes it challenging to be creative and make something kids will really enjoy eating.”

Glen Lake’s first-year food service director, Jackie Cobb, has been learning about federal impediments to creativity all summer.

Cobb, a culinary arts instructor at Great Lakes Culinary Institute, said the USDA literature was overwhelming at first — but she’s done her homework and she’s in a good spot.

“I’ve written my first school lunch menu and I’m just trying to make it appealing as I can while adhering to USDA guidelines,” Cobb said. “We just have to watch our portion size and make fruits and vegetables way more attractive to (students).”

Cobb said she’s been in contact with Ruszel and other area food service directors who have shown her the ropes.

“I walked into a very nice situation. The staff is great,” Cobb said of Glen Lake. “We’re just trying to incorporate more local products into the menu than ever before.”

For more on the USDA’s school lunch program, visit www.fns.usda.gov/nslp/national-school-lunch-program-nslp.

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