Meal ticket: RSU 5 students get good stuff, portal lets parents track their meals

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FREEPORT — Students and staff who have been abiding by new nutrition guidelines at the six Regional School Unit 5 schools get a grade of A, Nutrition Director Kim Austin said.

Stricter federal child nutrition guidelines, which call for whole grains, calorie counts and minimum servings of fruits and vegetables, have been in place since the beginning of the school year. Next month, another big change comes to the lunchroom: a point-of-sale system that will provide an online parent portal.

Students now are eating brown rice instead of white rice. Muffins and breakfast bars must be made with at least 51 percent whole grains. Pasta – and this has been the tough one – also must be made with whole grain. Students now must eat pasta that is brown, with that rather chewy consistency.

“It’s pretty much the pasta that’s been the challenge for our students,” Austin said last week. “But it’s a national issue, as well. When they see the darker colors, it kind of turns them off, but they’re getting used to it. But the students have been terrific. They ask questions. We’ve increased the amount of consumption of fruits and vegetables. I would give all the schools a midterm report of an A.”

While the new federal regulations mandate more, they also call for less – as in calories.

“We have a calorie cap for every breakfast and every lunch and they’re specific by age group,” Austin said. “Foods also have to be zero in trans fats and very minimal sodium levels. What it’s done is it’s basically narrowed the food options.”

Austin said that the most significant change in the look of an RSU 5 cafeteria is the fruit and vegetable bar, and the location of the checkout. The food bar is fruit and vegetables only, along with condiments.

Students use “spoodles,” long serving spoons with measuring cups at the ends.

“We just ask them to take a level cup of fruits and vegetables at every meal,” she said. “We want them to take one of each or one of the other. But we encourage both, along with an entree and milk. We’ve increased the level of colorful, fresh salad bars. They’ve adapted to it very quickly.”

Austin said that younger children tend to take more food.

“It’s a social time for the older students,” she said. “Sometimes they’re asked to go back to the line.”

As for the cashiers, they stand at the end of the line now, after the choices are made, instead of at the beginning.

“We see happier students,” Austin said, “and we see them eating more.”

Susan Baker, cafeteria specialist at Freeport Middle School, said that students are taking at least the amount of fruits and vegetables that fit into the spoodles.

“They seem to have it down,” Baker said. “And there’s less waste. Before, apples on the counter went to waste. Now there are more choices.”

As with most kids, students at Freeport Middle School like Mexican food.

“They really like the taco and fajita day,” Baker said. “Before, we didn’t do it all in one day. We have different choices for fillings now, too.”

Parent portal

Another significant change in the RSU 5 school nutrition program has not yet taken place, but is at hand.

Beginning on April 25, RSU 5 will roll out a “point of sale” system that will provide an online parent portal, which can be accessed anytime. Parents will be able to view student meal purchases and add funds to each student’s account. The point-of-sale system has an electronic free-and-reduced meal application, so that parents and guardians can apply online for those benefits.

Austin said that RSU 5 recently purchased the cloud-based system from Heartland Solutions of New York. The idea is to make it easier for parents and food service employees – Austin included – to keep track of school lunch purchases and reduce cumbersome paperwork.

To start, a 15-inch touch screen will replace the cash register at the end of the food line. A student photo ID will come up, and the student will enter his or her assigned number on the key pad. The system will verify student purchases.

“It’s similar to an electronic checkbook online,” Austin said. “We’ll send out a letter in early April to parents, and encourage them to get online, view the accounts, and they can add money.”

Austin said that the new system will improve communications between parents and RSU 5. It will eliminate the problem of lost lunch tickets. There will be instant communication for free and reduced-fee students. Electronic messages, instead of handwritten notes, will go back and forth between parents and the schools.

Austin will manage the system, and all information within it will be confidential.

“It will be the first cloud-based system in the state,” she said. “Others have local servers that need IT people. With the cloud-based system, everything is saved if the Internet goes down.”

Austin expects that the new point of sale tool will decrease the time staff spends on paperwork, allowing them to pay more attention to the students.

“They truly, truly do care about the the students,” she said. “Their faces glow when they see the students’ faces going through the line.”

Baker said that the new parent portal will cut down on her paperwork.

“I won’t have to write everything down,” she said. “It might be challenging at first. But eventually, we’ll have more time for some deep cleaning, and sorting in the freezer.”

Breakfast for all students in RSU 5 is $1.70. Lunch for elementary school students is $2.60, and for middle and high school students the cost is $2.85. All students receive the same meal, regardless if their parents or guardians owe meal money to RSU 5.

The fruit and vegetable bar at Freeport Middle School features fresh cantaloupe, blueberries, mixed fruit with fresh apples, fresh cucumbers, fresh carrot sticks, beets and fresh romaine crowns.Zachary Cote, a Freeport Middle School seventh-grader, uses his “spoodle” to gather just the right amount of food at the fruit and vegetable bar.