School food service directors form alliance to meet students' nutritional needs

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) – Several school food service directors in northeast Arkansas have formed an alliance to help administrators overcome challenges in meeting the nutritional needs of students.

The latest goal of the Northeast Arkansas School Nutrition Consortium has been to make sure the menus of the 20 participating schools comply with the new federal guidelines for school food menus.

"We've been in the group for actually four years. We originally started because of food pricing. It had gotten so ridiculous," said Harrisburg Public Schools Child Nutrition Director Dolores Sutterfield. "We have pooled all our resources to purchase and network together."

The group includes food service directors from school districts in Armorel, Blytheville, Brookland, Buffalo Island Central, Corning, Cross County, East Poinsett County, Gosnell, Harrisburg, Manila, Marmaduke, Marked Tree, Newport, Nettleton, Piggott, Rector, Riverside, South Mississippi, Trumann and Wynne.

The food service directors started working in May on the school menus for the estimated 26,000 students they serve.

"When the new meal pattern regulations came out we as a group we started saying, 'Oh my gosh. What are we going to do because this is tremendous,'" Sutterfield said.

She used chicken strips as an example of what the food service directors have to do with each item on the school menu.

"I have to go to the manufacturers' labels. Then I have to go to a nutrient label. Then I have to go a recipe and be sure that recipe is actually what we're using on the school district level. Then we have to figure on that recipe on those chicken strips does it count as a meat. Is there breading on that chicken strip that counts as a bread for the week?"

Sutterfield said the flow of ideas in the group has served them well as they have tried to tailor menus for students in Region 8.

"What fits in the North may not fit in the South, and so that's how we came as a group and tried to decide what our students actually eat," Sutterfield said. "For instance, red orange now has to be on the tray, a red orange vegetable. Is it going to be squash? Is it going to be pumpkin? Is it going to be red peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, tomato juice? We found out as a group when we came together most of us felt like what our students would actually eat would be either the tomatoes or the carrots."

Nettleton School District Child Nutrition Director Dawn Ragsdale said making group work out of their tasks makes them easier.

"I've appreciated that the workload has been lifted a lot on this even though we already feel stretched to the max."

Ragsdale believes the benefits of the changes have yet to be determined. "I don't think it's a bad idea at all to offer more fruits and vegetables. I'm on board for that," she said. "I think it's good for them to see, to know, to experience. I just don't know that it's going to be accepted by the older students as well as it is if you implement it younger."

Sutterfield said there will be new implementations in the school food menus for the next few years, such as reductions in sodium and increases whole grains.

"This year (2012-13) half of the breads that we offer have to be whole grains. Next year (2013-14) they're bring breakfast in, and half of those have to be whole grains. By 2014-15, everything has to be whole grain."

Nettleton High School students said they have noticed the changes that have already been made.

"Past years there was bigger portions and stuff, and I can tell now it's more healthy food like salads and fruits and vegetables and stuff," said sophomore Adam Fry.

As more changes in school menus come, everyone is waiting to find out if students will change their eating habits as a result.

"Yeah, I like salad and I usually get the nachos though," said sophomore Christina Weaver.

Representatives from the State Department will be in Jonesboro Wednesday to approve the menus coordinated by the schools in the Northeast Arkansas School Nutrition Consortium.

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