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Fort Thomas Ind. making it work after dropping out of federal school meals program; fruits, vegetables still provided, so are fries and cake, and students react positively...

Community Press & Recorder, Fort Mitchell, Oct. 7, 2014

Nutrition advice and fries on school lunch menu
by Chris Mayhew

FORT THOMAS – Students at Highlands High School can get fries with their meal anytime they want after Fort Thomas Independent Schools dropped out of the federal meals program this year.

Vegetables and fruits are on the menu too, and the choice of what to eat is up to students with a little nudge of advice from school cafeteria workers, said Gina Sawma, food and nutrition director for Fort Thomas Independent Schools.

The district opted out of the federal meals program and lost $260,000 in associated funding this summer, according to an Aug. 9 Enquirer article. Interest in eating the school cafeteria food had been waning as stricter federal meals standards took effect in recent years, Sawma said. Packed lunches and Highlands High’s status as the last public school in Kentucky where students can leave for lunch contributed to the downturn in meals, she said.

In the two years before dropping the federal program, the district lost 19,000 meals or 166 per day than it served in 2011, she said. The changes were due to the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 – implemented in 2012, Sawma said.

For instance, cheese and the district’s homemade croutons had to be left off the salad bar at the middle school and high school because of increasingly strict federal nutrition guidelines, she said. Cheese and croutons are back this year, she said. Students are allowed to get a sprinkle and not gobs of cheese, so the offerings are still nutritious, she said.

“At my middle school, the salad bar consumption was cut in half,” Sawma said. “This year, the kids are back to eating the salad.”

Also, prices on food haven’t increased this year, and when students want more fruits and vegetables they’re never turned down, she said.

Cake, which used to have to be served with each meal under the federal plan on some days, is now an extra every day, she said. The district also sells its own homemade cookies.

“I have had some kids come up and say I’m buying eight (cookies), and they say it’s for their friends,” Sawma said. “And I say go get your friends.”

Fries an option

Last year, the high school served 300 pounds of fries on each of the two days a month they were served, she said.

This year, the high school is now serving about 60 pounds of fries a day, a number indicating students are making healthy choices, she said.

“I’m not proud of the fact that we serve french fries every day,” she said.

The fries are 200 calories per serving, Sawma said.

French fries and pizza are some of the options, and have been, at the Twisty Grill across the street from Highlands at Highlands United Methodist Church.

And in Fort Thomas’ school cafeterias the same amount of fruits and vegetables are making their way onto student trays this year – when students don’t have to take them, Sawma said.

“I did see last year if you make a kid take it they will throw it away right in front of the register,” she said.

Junior Jacquelin Birkley of Fort Thomas said she didn’t go off campus much to the Twisty Grill or Subway in previous years, but she did pack regularly. Birkley, who got a buffalo wrap from the a la cart custom order line Sept. 30, said she now eats in the cafeteria sometimes.

“I like to be able to pick out what food I want,” Birkley said.

With four different lines instead of two, the wait for a meal is less, she said.

“I like how all the lines are open now,” Birkley said.

Freshman Robert Schaub of Fort Thomas said he goes to the Twisty Grill to hang out with friends, but also because the school cafeteria is now so busy after dropping the federal meal plan.

“Now that they did that, the school cafeteria, it’s ridiculously crowded,” Schaub said.

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