Somerville students enjoy nutritious lunches ‘even though it’s healthy’ At Winter Hill school, innovation entices kids, helps budget

Melissa Pocek

The signs above the students read “Nourish Your Mind” and “Eat Smart – Live Well.” A girl going through the lunch line greets Mary Joan McLarney, a registered dietician for the Winter Hill Community School.

“Have the butternut squash: It’s wonderful,” McLarney advises her. The girl looks for the orange vegetable, baked with flecks of rosemary, and when she finds it she smiles.

The school is serving locally grown butternut squash as part of its Vegetable of the Month Program. Somerville schools have partnered with local organizations to create budget-friendly programs that both feed and teach children about eating healthy and where their food comes from.

McLarney is the most vocal proponent for high standards to make the best lunches possible at Somerville schools. “This is the best meal a lot of these kids get a day,” McLarney says. “A lot of the kids don’t get fresh fruit or milk at home.” Feeding children healthy food is no small responsibility in Somerville, where 65 percent of the students get free or reduced-priced meals.

Many school districts face problems in providing nutritious lunches, but Somerville is a good example of a lunch program that focuses on health first. Those efforts are most noticeable in the Winter Hill Community School, where lunches are prepared daily for the whole school district. And the best part? It’s cost-effective. Recognized for innovation, the Somerville schools offer lessons that other districts can use.

Buy locally, eat well

This is the fifth year that Somerville schools have purchased local fruits and vegetables for lunches. An organization called Groundwork Somerville supplies the schools with some of the seasonal vegetables and herbs. Produce availability is limited by the time of year, of course, which is why. The majority of local purchasing happens in the fall and early winter.

As for the fruit, “We purchase from Lanni Orchards in Lunenburg. We are trying to develop more and more recipes that the kids will eat and the staff could make,” McLarney says.

School food service staff went to Lanni Orchards to meet the farmer, McLarney says. “Basically we took them there so they would realize the importance of supporting local economy and the environmental aspects of it.”

McLarney has a lot of ideas about how to continue to improve school lunches,really trying to focus to get them fresh fruits and vegetables, fiber, and try to introduce whole grains, ” she said, “Our goal is to help Somerville’s children develop healthy eating through instruction and role modeling in a healthy environment.”

Testing engages students, helps identify sure¬fire foods

The problem that Winter Hill and many other schools face is finding nutritious foods that students will eat. To help with this issue, Winter Hill School and University of Massachusetts Extension’s nutrition department conducted taste tests for students.

Samples included nutritious offerings such as sweet potatoes, salad greens with maple syrup vinaigrette, and the ever-popular butternut squash. The maple syrup that went into the vinaigrette was tapped from Somerville trees. Tapping is part of a big all-day event called “The Big Boil” that celebrates the process of turning tree sap into syrup.

Somerville Public Schools and Tufts University’s Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service collaborate to get the students involved. “Some of the kids get to go out and see them tapping the trees,” says Charlotte Stephenson, one of three registered dieticians who helps organize the taste tests in Winter Hill School. “This is an educational experience.”

Once the dieticians have chosen a food to test, “We will market it and explain to kids what it is and then we will go around and have the kids vote whether they like it or not,” Stephenson says.

She says that the kids will try anything, though it often takes them time to accept new tastes. “It is important to expose them at a younger age so that they can become accustomed to it and incorporate it into their regular diet so they can develop healthy eating habits,” Stephenson says.

“Districts do testing when they can if they have the manpower. Doing a taste test takes a lot of time and energy just between purchasing, preparing, cooking, and setting up the samples. Then we need to get volunteers doing the signs, marketing it, and getting the voting done. There are a lot of different components to it.”

Although Stephenson hopes that there will be more taste tests in the future, the school hasn’t been able to find the help to conduct another test.

McLarney and Stephenson agree that cooperation yields better education and better eating among their students, which they see in positive reactions from children.

“We put out a nice variety of fresh fruits and vegetables every single day so that the kids can have as much of that as they want,” McLarney says. “We go through so many fruits and vegetables a week. My job can be frustrating, but it is gratifying seeing kids eating the butternut squash and actually really enjoying it even though it’s healthy.”

Source: The Somerville News