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School Lunch Is Evolving At CMSD

School lunch doesn’t look like it used to.

Gone are the partitioned plastic trays the mandatory scoops of steamed mixed vegetables and mystery meat that a kid may or may not end up tossing into the trash. In addition to offering more nutritious options, lunchtime these days is subtly taking the learning process from the classroom to the cafeteria and empowering kids to make healthy choices.

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District is holding a series of meet-and-greet food-tasting events to give parents a better understanding of what goes into serving nutritious meals, a look at the district’s food programs and an opportunity to ask questions – and taste some things for themselves.

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a federal program that CMSD participates in, offers breakfast and lunch at no cost to enrolled students. Districts and individual schools that adopt CEP are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students categorically eligible for free meals.

There is no individual student application process for CEP, but participating schools must follow the program’s guidelines, including the “offer verses serve” rule. Meals must offer students a choice of three of five components on offer from different food groups, with one required item being a fruit or vegetable.

CMSD Executive Chef Tim Wright takes this concept to heart.

“I want the students to be served with dignity, I don’t want somebody to put a plate in front of a kid and say there is your lunch,” he said. “Dignity is really important to me, they choose what they want to eat. I’m not dictating what they get.”

Another CEP guideline requires every meal to be nutritionally balanced, with a grain, meat, meat-alternative and a fruit or vegetable. And that’s where the “offer verses serve” rule empowers students, said CMSD Director of Nutrition Stephanie Hobbs.

“If we have a teriyaki bowl, we have to say, do you want the rice or do you want cheese? We cannot just say here you go,” Hobbs said. “We have to give them an option. We have to offer so many components in order to get reimbursed.”

With food allergies affecting four out of every 100 children in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CMSD also has to make accommodations for allergies and other dietary needs.  And parents have other concerns of their own, especially when it comes to sugary items like doughnuts and chocolate- and strawberry- flavored milk.

When those items appear in a CMSD cafeteria, however, looks may be deceiving the kids, Hobbs said.

“You see donuts, you see sugar, you see powder, you see chocolate. But if you compare it with the regular store-bought version, you will see the difference,” she said. “The store has more sugar than we offer, so when you bite into [ours] it’s whole grain and it’s something the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees school lunches] doesn’t mind if we serve.”

Even if a sweet treat meets USDA lunch standards, Hobbs still understands the concerns, and the need to teach moderation.

“We do know that some kids will go for that item every day,” she said. ”So maybe we say let’s just put those out once a week or once a month and rotate and put some other items out.”

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