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Our Towns: John Stark Regional High School receives award for healthy lunches, physical activity

  • Trays are lined up before a lunch shift at John Stark Regional High School, which recently became the first New Hampshire school to meet the HealthierUS School Challenge from the USDA and received a bronze award for their efforts. To qualify, schools were required to improve food quality, educate students about nutrition, and have physical education and activities. Morgan Trahan, food service director at the school, was in charge of the restructuring and implementing the healthier lunches. <br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

    Trays are lined up before a lunch shift at John Stark Regional High School, which recently became the first New Hampshire school to meet the HealthierUS School Challenge from the USDA and received a bronze award for their efforts. To qualify, schools were required to improve food quality, educate students about nutrition, and have physical education and activities. Morgan Trahan, food service director at the school, was in charge of the restructuring and implementing the healthier lunches.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

  • Savannah Goulet, 15, left, and Elizabeth Palmisno, 15, both sophomores at John Stark Regional High School, finish their lunches on Tuesday afternoon, December 11, 2012. John Stark recently became the first New Hampshire school to meet the HealthierUS School Challenge from the USDA and received a bronze award for their efforts. To qualify, schools were required to improve food quality, educate students about nutrition, and have physical education and activities. Morgan Trahan, food service director at the school, was in charge of the restructuring and implementing the healthier lunches. <br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

    Savannah Goulet, 15, left, and Elizabeth Palmisno, 15, both sophomores at John Stark Regional High School, finish their lunches on Tuesday afternoon, December 11, 2012. John Stark recently became the first New Hampshire school to meet the HealthierUS School Challenge from the USDA and received a bronze award for their efforts. To qualify, schools were required to improve food quality, educate students about nutrition, and have physical education and activities. Morgan Trahan, food service director at the school, was in charge of the restructuring and implementing the healthier lunches.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

  • John Stark Regional High School recently became the first New Hampshire school to meet the HealthierUS School Challenge from the USDA and received a bronze award for their efforts. To qualify, schools were required to improve food quality, educate students about nutrition, and have physical education and activities. Morgan Trahan, food service director at the school, was in charge of the restructuring and implementing the healthier lunches. <br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

    John Stark Regional High School recently became the first New Hampshire school to meet the HealthierUS School Challenge from the USDA and received a bronze award for their efforts. To qualify, schools were required to improve food quality, educate students about nutrition, and have physical education and activities. Morgan Trahan, food service director at the school, was in charge of the restructuring and implementing the healthier lunches.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

  • A salad is prepared in the kitchen at John Stark Regional High School, which recently became the first New Hampshire school to meet the HealthierUS School Challenge from the USDA and received a bronze award for their efforts. To qualify, schools were required to improve food quality, educate students about nutrition, and have physical education and activities. Morgan Trahan, food service director at the school, was in charge of the restructuring and implementing the healthier lunches. <br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

    A salad is prepared in the kitchen at John Stark Regional High School, which recently became the first New Hampshire school to meet the HealthierUS School Challenge from the USDA and received a bronze award for their efforts. To qualify, schools were required to improve food quality, educate students about nutrition, and have physical education and activities. Morgan Trahan, food service director at the school, was in charge of the restructuring and implementing the healthier lunches.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

  • Trays are lined up before a lunch shift at John Stark Regional High School, which recently became the first New Hampshire school to meet the HealthierUS School Challenge from the USDA and received a bronze award for their efforts. To qualify, schools were required to improve food quality, educate students about nutrition, and have physical education and activities. Morgan Trahan, food service director at the school, was in charge of the restructuring and implementing the healthier lunches. <br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)
  • Savannah Goulet, 15, left, and Elizabeth Palmisno, 15, both sophomores at John Stark Regional High School, finish their lunches on Tuesday afternoon, December 11, 2012. John Stark recently became the first New Hampshire school to meet the HealthierUS School Challenge from the USDA and received a bronze award for their efforts. To qualify, schools were required to improve food quality, educate students about nutrition, and have physical education and activities. Morgan Trahan, food service director at the school, was in charge of the restructuring and implementing the healthier lunches. <br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)
  • John Stark Regional High School recently became the first New Hampshire school to meet the HealthierUS School Challenge from the USDA and received a bronze award for their efforts. To qualify, schools were required to improve food quality, educate students about nutrition, and have physical education and activities. Morgan Trahan, food service director at the school, was in charge of the restructuring and implementing the healthier lunches. <br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)
  • A salad is prepared in the kitchen at John Stark Regional High School, which recently became the first New Hampshire school to meet the HealthierUS School Challenge from the USDA and received a bronze award for their efforts. To qualify, schools were required to improve food quality, educate students about nutrition, and have physical education and activities. Morgan Trahan, food service director at the school, was in charge of the restructuring and implementing the healthier lunches. <br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

Chicken nuggets, mac and cheese. American chop suey. Shepherd’s pie with fluffy mashed potatoes on top of salty ground beef. Call me crazy – my friends in junior high did – but I always loved hot lunch at school.

Notice anything missing? Sure, there were tomatoes at some point in the chop suey sauce, and I vaguely remember corn between the layers of the shepherd’s pie, but there weren’t many veggies on my midday plate.

John Stark Regional High School received an award last night for doing just the opposite: increasing the choices of fruits and vegetables at lunch and encouraging the students to try them. The food lives up to its award-winning designation. Tuesday’s roasted chicken with a side of fresh orange slices left my memories of shepherd’s pie and Jell-O in the dust.

The school is the only high school in the state to receive the award, granted to schools that commit to offering healthier food, more physical activity and more health education to students.

They received an award plaque, a banner to display in the school and a check for $500.

Reid Zuckerman, a senior from Henniker, thinks the award is deserved. He’s seen the offerings at other schools: “greasy pizzas, fries, whole sections dedicated to those kinds of foods,” he

said. “We have something different.”

The something different includes a salad bar, fresh fruit several days a week and multiple choices for vegetables on most days.

Gradual process

Stark Food Service Director Morgan Trahan didn’t have to commit to changing much about how the lunch program worked, once she saw the requirements. The school had been gradually moving toward the same standards over the 15 years she’s worked in the cafeteria. Last year, she began offering two types of vegetables instead of just one each day and two choices of fruit. This fall, those standards became requirements by the federal school lunch program.

“When I started, we used to have Drake’s (snack cakes) for sale,” she said after lunch on Tuesday, her eyes wide with amazement. “That was acceptable then. It was acceptable everywhere, but we’ve just slowly made things better.”

Schools are already facing tougher lunch standards this year that call for vegetables that are naturally dark green, red or orange at every meal, along with fruit and healthy beans. Everything schools serve has to be approved by a government nutrition calculator, because so much of it is eaten by kids on the federally funded free and reduced-price lunch program. That includes potato chips, tater tots and mac and cheese.

Stark’s lunch offerings already met the federal requirements. By cleaning up the extras being offered – no more ice cream treats for dessert, vitamin-infused and sugar-sweetened drinks, or salty fried chips – the school qualified for the award.

Requirements

To qualify for a HealthierUS School Challenge award, the school has to offer one additional serving weekly from each of the three different vegetable categories. If the fruit offered is dried, it can’t have added sweetener; canned fruit must be packed in juice or light syrup, and 100 percent juice can be counted as a fruit only once per week.

At least one offering of fruit weekly has to be fresh, like the orange slices that were served Tuesday.

The roasted chicken was moist and flavorful, with a crunchy topping baked on. My lunch table-mate Kendra Speers, a sophomore from Weare, agreed that it was delicious and ate all the crunchy bits, even though she said she doesn’t like chicken.

I’m personally no fan of canned green beans under almost any circumstance, but the carrots still had a nice firm texture and the rice was mixed brown and white with the fuller flavor of brown rice but the softer texture of white.

The students weren’t eating the rice when it was 100 percent whole grain brown, Trahan said, so she started mixing it up to increase the whole grains but still please their palates.

The students said they don’t mind the changes. They like the chicken patties and the cheese quesadillas, and they tolerate the fruit.

The salad bar and Brunch-for-Lunch days, with pancakes, sausages and hash browns, are a big hit with Lexi Kendrick, a sophomore from Weare. Keith Nieman, another sophomore, said he’d love more fresh vegetables instead of canned or frozen, but that he understands the fresh ingredients may cost too much.

Everyone at my lunch table Tuesday raved about the chicken patties and the pizza.

The biggest changes the school enacted to qualify for the HealthierUS Schools award were outside of the lunch room.

Officials formalized the school’s unofficial policy that fundraisers can’t be primarily food-based. No candy bar sales, though take-home food like cookie dough and pizza kits are still allowed since they’ll probably be made and eaten with parent involvement, Trahan said.

The school also had to document the way it teaches students about nutrition, which happens in several different classes, she said.

The award also recognizes what the school has done to promote physical activity. Every student, regardless of whether or not he or she participates in interscholastic athletics, is required to take a full credit of physical education.

“I love gym,” Kendra said. “It’s not just running. There’s always activities and fun things. Most kids want more gym.”

Zach Grattan wouldn’t mind being exempt from the physical activity requirements, since he plays varsity basketball. He worries about getting hurt in gym class or just being tired, and he brought a bag lunch Tuesday, partly because he knew his lunch account was empty and partly because he had access to some great leftovers.

When he does buy lunch, he said sometimes it’s not enough, even when the staff encourage students to grab fruit, saying the meal will cost more – $3 as opposed to $2.50 – if they don’t.

That’s not actually true, Trahan admitted. Lunch would be $2.50 no matter what, but the approach gets more apples into the hands of more teenagers, so she’s not going to work hard to dispel the rumor.

Too much waste?

Whether the students eat the fruit or the extra veggies once they leave the lunch line is another question.

Grattan said he’s seen a lot of the food end up in the trash. He’s not alone. So many school lunch program directors have complained about increased waste since new standards were enacted this year that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced on Monday he’s loosening regulations regarding meats and grains in school lunches.

This fall, schools had to provide meals that fell within a certain calorie range, while also meeting minimum portion sizes for vegetables and fruit. The standards also limited portion sizes for meat and grains, which left kids hungry, critics said.

In his response, Vilsack said schools can exceed the maximum weekly amount of meat and grains if they still fall within the calorie range and offer enough fruits and vegetables. But he also said school meals were intended to be only a portion of kids’ daily diet, and active youth should bring or have the option to buy after-school snacks.

Trahan doesn’t plan to change anything in response to the loosened guidelines, which are likely to change again for the next school year, she said.

“We were doing all this before it was required anyway,” she said. “I’ve not had a hard time meeting the standards and not had any complaints from the students, so I’m not going to change anything.”

Stark students do have additional choices just beyond Trahan’s reach, at “The Generals’ Store,” run by students for a business class. The store, just outside the cafeteria, is open for a limited time during the day and sells cookies, snacks and slushies in blue raspberry and watermelon.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

Congrats Morgan and crew - you deserve it!

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