As she tries to explain the evolution of the school lunch in the three decades or so that she's worked in the Crookston School District's Food Service program, Ann Riedlinger has no shortage of resources and data to cite. To detail the changes in nutritional requirements that took effect this year, and look to evolve even more next year, she has a thick package of papers full of minutiae having to do with caloric content, portion control, protein, starches, fruits and vegetables...just a monumental amount of information to digest.
But Riedlinger, never accused of beating around the bush or over-complicating matters as she's managed the Food Service program for the past 21 years or so, has a much easier to way to sum up where school lunches were then, and where they are now.
"We used to pour butter over everything," she said in her office at Crookston High School the other day. "We'd have sinks and sinks full of chicken and put it in pans and pour butter over everything and bake it. The bread had tons of butter on it. The fish squares...we'd pour butter over the fish in the pans and the kids ate it like crazy."
Maybe the kids could get away with it back in those days, when they had gym class every day and didn't know what it meant to be married to a wireless device that was practically key to their very existence.
"They were more active back then, so you didn't hear about any obesity epidemic," Riedlinger said. "Now in this technology era or whatever you want to call it, none of us are moving."
Butter..it's a hard habit to break. "Who doesn't like butter?" she said, adding that a new staff member training in recently said that a menu item he was making needed butter. Salt, too. "I said 'no way, that's a no-no,'" Riedlinger recalled. "I said 'you can use all the butter and salt you want at home, but not here.'"
Still cooking after all these years
Riedlinger, 65, is in her 32nd year in the local school food service proram. She started out as a cook at Crookston Central High School. When budget cuts a couple years later resulted in the food services director position being eliminated, Riedlinger said she was told to formulate the school menus. Then she was told to order all the groceries. Next came filling out the month-end reports. All the while she was still a cook. In 1991, she said she couldn't do it all anymore, and was soon given her current title.
Anyone who saw the docu-drama film "Fast Food Nation" from a few years ago remembers the protagonist – who existed for an entire month on nothing but a McDonald's diet – standing in a school freezer with a food service worker and asking her how much school cooks actually cooked anymore. The worker proceeded to to a box cutter out of her apron and proclaim that it was a kitchen worker's most important tool, for opening all the boxes of pre-processed, frozen foods to be reheated for the kids. Not a mixing spoon or a spatula, but a box-cutting knife.
It may come as a surprise to some, however, to know that much of what the kids in Crookston's schools eat these days starts raw in the kitchen and is prepared by...cooks. Turkey, turkey gravy, spaghetti, tacos, hot dishes, baked chicken...all made from scratch, Riedlinger said. "We peel a lot of potatoes, we prepare a lot of beets and squash, and it's all fresh from local growers," she explained. "It takes skill, labor and patience, but what I'm seeing is people taking more pride in their work. I'm seeing people being fussy about how something is not just prepared but presented to the kids. We know they are our customers and if they don't want to come and eat our food then we don't have a job."
Toss a bunch of frozen food into an oven or a fryer and there's not much to worry about. But prepare fresh foods using labor-intensive practices, and Riedlinger said things can never be too clean in order to avoid cross-contamination. "The biggest fear is a whole school full of sick kids and having to face those parents," she said with a chuckle.
Takes time to adjust
Riedlinger isn't going to pretend that the federally mandated changes in school lunch nutritional requirements are universally popular. Kids have complained to their parents about not liking all the added fruits and vegetables and of being hungry before the school day ends. It ignited a mini-controversy earlier this fall at a school board meeting, and it required Riedlinger's attendance at a subsequent meeting to alert everyone to the fact that the nutritional requirements are a reality, and that it will take years for everyone to adjust.
Beets are a prime example. "We get them on the tray, but not in the stomach," she said. The day of her interview, the high school menu featured sloppy joe's, chips, beans, hummus, broccoli and carrots. "The students come through, they take what they have to, eat the sloppy joe and chips, and throw the rest," Riedlinger said. "Then they come back and buy another lunch, because the second time through they don't have to take the fruits and vegetables." The first lunch that includes the required fruits and vegetables costs the student $2.40. The second lunch, in which the student is free to take only what he or she wants? That costs $3.50.
A student lunch that meets the federal nutritional requirements is eligible for a federal reimbursement. Depending on if the meal is eligible for the free/reduced program or full price, the reimbursement ranges from 39 cents per meal to $2.98. Obviously, securing the reimbursement is a big deal.
"The first time, they have to have at least a half cup of a fruit or vegetable in order to go through, and if they don't the clerk will stop them and send them back," Riedlinger said.
For years, students self-served for the most part, but with the new regulations Riedlinger said staff is now serving certain items. "Take sloppy joe's," she explained. "If we don't serve them up, the students will just take gobs and gobs and go over the calorie limit."
Riedlinger remembers when the salad bar was first added to the lunch line at Central High. She also remembers when the government came out with the "offer versus serve" method that limited a lunch to only three items per tray in order to reduce waste. Now, with the addition of the fruit/vegetable requirement, it's up to four items. "If we don't do all of this, we don't get reimbursed," she said. "When they come out they go through our production records. They check to see if there was enough protein offered today for the number of students eating. Was there enough veggies? We have to write down how much was offered and how much was left over and not served."
Riedlinger recently sent in a bunch of additional data to see if the school district meets the guidelines to receive an additional six cents per-meal reimbursement. "It all adds up," she said.
It's not just butter. And it's not just fruits and vegetables. Gone is white bread. In it's place is whole wheat. Gone is white race, replaced by brown rice and wild rice. Milk today is either 1 percent or skim.
Then there's the free and reduced meal program, for which about half of families in the Crookston School District are eligible. Oh, and the food allergies. "You just didn't hear about them back then," Riedlinger said. "Now we separate all the menus for all the allergies...peanuts, celiac, lactose, soy, fish, eggs, gluten, corn. The kids with diabetes, you have to stay on top of that. It goes on and on and there's more every year."
So it almost goes without saying that peanut butter is a relic in the schools. "We have 'sun' butter now, and they don't like it," Riedlinger said.
The "more every year" contention will come to fruition next year, she said, when new school breakfast requirements kick in, and the sodium requirement in school lunches becomes even more strict. "I don't know how we'll meet it," she said.
But through it all, enough kids are still eating school lunches, enough customers so that Riedlinger and her staff still have jobs.
"At the end of the day, through all these changes and all the time it's going to take to see real results, there is a positive impact," Riedlinger said. "Elementary kids are more accepting to change, you see them trying to new stuff and being open to change. That willingness will stay with them. Overall, I'm happy with the kids. They haven't staged any walkouts or anything, which we've seen elsewhere, and I'm thankful for that.
Students, if they have questions about the changes, aren't afraid to pop into Riedlinger's office and ask her. During her interview with the Times, in fact, two students from the CHS news program, Channel 1, to set up an interview with her that will air during PrimeTime homeroom at the high school.
"When kids want to know, I just tell them the facts," she said. "I tell them we want them to be healthier because we care about them and their future."