Mealtime lessons lost for today’s youth

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series about the school lunch program for USD 257, nutritional needs of youth and the growing problem of hunger in Iola.

Register Editor

Register/Susan Lynn
Longtime school cook Helen Rogers helps serve Lincoln Elementary School third-graders, from left, Cinthia Avila, Mia Aronson and Sean Lewis.

If Colleen Riebel had her way, she’d serve homemade entrees every day to area students, plus fresh fruits and vegetables.
But space constraints force Riebel, director of food services for USD 257, to serve packaged foods that are higher in sodium and fats than she would like.
The physical constraints of the district’s primary kitchen at Iola High School limits cooking food from scratch, Riebel said. The one kitchen is the site for most of the food preparation for the district’s five K-12 schools spread across town. This forces Riebel and her staff to have the day’s food ready to be transported to area schools by 9:15 a.m. where it is kept warm until lunchtime.
If the district’s students all ate at one location — and a bigger kitchen were provided — cooks could prepare entrees right up to the minute of serving, Riebel said.
The demanding delivery timeline means often serving pre-prepared food that cooks simply heat up. That convenience can mean not only a less appetizing meal of triangular potato patties and rectangular chicken strips, but also food that is typically less healthy because it relies more on starches and is higher in sodium and fats than if prepared from scratch.
This reporter enjoyed lunch with Lincoln Elementary School students last Thursday. Our fare was a choice of either pizza or eight breaded chicken strips, rosy applesauce, a slice of “whole wheat white” bread, a potato patty, canned corn, a square of pumpkin cake, and a carton of white or chocolate milk.
The bread and the dessert were made on site. Everything else came frozen or canned.
Riebel estimated about 60-65 percent of the school’s entrees came pre-prepared, and though they may be students’ favorites, she knows she’s not doing them any favors by serving them food that could be leaner and greener. Meals made on site include lasagne, meatloaf, fried rice, chili, spaghetti and chicken and noodles.

RIEBEL grew up on a farm in rural LeRoy, one of seven children whose family started and ended the day with a home-cooked meal of fresh eggs, fresh milk from their grade C dairy, perhaps a slice of ham and pancakes or waffles.
“We didn’t eat cereal for breakfast,” she said.
That’s a far cry from many of today’s households. Riebel tells of students who view microwaved frozen entrees as being homecooked meals.
“Just the fact that their mother opens a bag, makes them think she’s cooking,” she said.
Reibel’s interest in cooking began early. Her mother worked as a cook for LeRoy schools once her children were of an independent age. Riebel and her sister, Chloe, also ran C&C catering for about five years before Riebel took the position with USD 257 in 2005.
Riebel credits area 4-H programs with reaching some students about the basics of cooking and nutrition — areas that were formerly taught by home economics teachers. Otherwise, there’s a large segment of today’s youth who grow up ignorant of the importance good nutrition plays in one’s ability to perform well in the classroom.
A good part of her job now deals less with cooking and more with budgeting, she said. Recent cuts to the school’s budget directly affect her ability to buy more desirable food, she said. Something like a pig in a blanket, a hot dog wrapped with dough, averages 42 cents, a bargain too good to pass. When they cook from scratch, savings are even greater. The day’s pumpkin bars, for example, could be made for 9 cents apiece.

PIG-IN-A-BLANKET notwithstanding, deciding a menu is all about moderation and balance, said Karen Works, a child nutrition consultant with the Kansas State Department of Education. Works administers the child nutrition programs in 15 Southeast Kansas counties, including the schools in Allen County.
She ensures that schools meet health and nutrition state regulations. On the back side, that means that food preparation areas are sanitary and the foods meet dietary guidelines.
The flip side is that students clean their plates.
Works and her crew have three primary goals: To feed students healthy meals that they like within a threadbare budget — the aim is an average of $1.10 per meal over a week’s time. The proverbial pig remains a favorite over generations, Works said. And while she can’t laud it as the most nutritious of school lunches, its whole wheat “blanket” provides needed grains, and coupled with baked beans, spicey fries, sliced peaches and milk, it qualifies as meeting state and federal nutrtional guidelines.
The goal of providing a healthy meal for students is critical, because for many, it’s their only one of the day, said Karen Works,
She should know. As part of her job, Works regularly shares a meal with students in the school lunch program. One of her standard questions is to ask students what they had for dinner the night before.
It’s not a pretty picture.
For some, chips and dip is it. For others, drive-through fast food. Still others, whatever they can scrounge up on their own.
There’s an entire strata of children, Works said, who live in homes where there’s no dinner served, much less a conversation around a table, napkins in laps, and other lessons on etiquette.
Such habits hearken one to the poem, “The Goops,” by Gilette Burgess:

“The Goops they lick their fingers,
And the Goops they lick their knives,
They spill their broth on the tablecloth,
Oh!, they lead disgusting lives!”

Sitting together for a meal has many benefits, Works said.
“I’m always amazed at how the children act when I share a meal with them,” she said. “They watch what I eat, and follow suit, whereas perhaps peer pressure, or maybe just unfamiliarity with a food would keep them from sampling it.
“They watch my manners. When I dab my mouth with my napkin, they do, too. Otherwise, they’ll simply pull up the collar of a shirt or use a sleeve to mop up.
“I keep them focused on eating their food and use it as a springboard for conversation.”

AT LINCOLN Elementary we ate to the noise of janitors using large vacuums to clean the cafeteria/gymnasium floor in preparation for the incoming gym class. It’s that way every day for the third-graders who are the last served in the 90-minute lunch program.
It’s a rushed feeling as the gym students come pounding into the makeshift cafeteria bouncing basketballs.
Riebel is clearly distressed.
“This is not the right atmosphere for a meal,” she said.
Good behavior, civilized behavior, is lacking in the elementary cafeterias, Works and Riebel said, and is reflected by partially eaten meals, spilled food, and students not eating from the important food groups.
Works bemoans the fact that today’s teachers don’t eat the noon meal with their students, providing valuable role models.
Riebel echos that concern and welcomes the community at large to perhaps use eating with the students as a community service project.

“The Goops they talk while eating,
And loud and fast they chew;
And that is why I’m glad that I
Am not a Goop, are you?”

Friday: The need for good nutrition.