SUGAR GROVE — Chicken nuggets. Pizza. Spaghetti and meatballs.
They’re meals, often served with a carton of milk and a chocolate chip cookie or two, that easily can be found in the lunchlines of elementary schools across the state.
But they’re probably the last meals one will see students eating in the lunchroom at Berne Union Elementary School.
That’s because Berne Union Local Schools is stepping away from the traditional school menu of frozen pizza and hot dogs and replacing it with meals such as orange chicken, homemade macaroni and cheese and pasta salad.
Berne Union is the only district in Fairfield County to contract with Taher Foods, a food-service management company that helps schools serve fresh, healthy meals to students on a daily basis. The program is called Food for Life and has been a part of Berne Union’s lunchroom for the past four years.
On Friday, Taher Chef Jay Rommelfanger prepared a meal of orange chicken, rice and green veggies for the elementary school students. Rommelfanger visits Berne Union Local Schools about twice per year to prepare new, homemade meals for the students.
“It’s all about introducing the kids to healthier eating; we’re introducing fruits and vegetables and trying to get them away from the processed foods,” Rommelfanger said. “My job primarily is to introduce the kids to foods, flavors and textures they wouldn’t normally experience.”
Rommelfanger said a lot of the recipes he brings to the schools are foreign foods, such as Mexican and Moroccan.
“A lot of people look at Taco Bell and think it’s ‘authentic’ Mexican food, but it’s not,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll make them an authentic burrito and the kids will go, ‘where’s the cheese? Where’s the sour cream?'”
When Rommelfanger is visiting eight other schools in Ohio and Wisconsin, the cooks at Berne Union take over, preparing meals Rommelfanger has shown them, such as homemade lasagna and breakfast burritos.
“We’re always trying new recipes,” said Berne Union Food Service Director Sherry Foltz, who receives new menus and recipes from Taher and Rommelfanger on a regular basis. “It’s nice when (Rommelfanger) comes and makes the food because he’ll do it and then I can ask the kids, ‘did you like that? Would you like to get that again?”
“I’ve found, with most of them, many will say, ‘yes, I did like that.'”
Foltz said the the fact that school’s menu is constantly changing is one of the benefits of having a program such as Food for Life in the district. Students are exposed to more of a variety, she said, rather than the same lunch menu, week after week.
The program also has inspired the staff at Berne Union to teach the students healthy eating habits. A fresh fruit and vegetable bar is a constant presence in the lunchroom and the food in the bar changes every week; on Friday, it offered everything from watermelon to grapes to strawberries to celery sticks.
“We don’t have dips with the celery and carrot sticks because of the fat content,” Foltz said. “When we have lettuce, we serve it without dressing, because we’re trying to encourage the students to eat fruits and vegetables without any additives.”
Even the desserts served with the meals are healthy. Chocolate chip cookies and pie are replaced with blueberry muffins and oatmeal cookies.
Rommelfanger said not only does the Food for Life program enforce healthy eating habits, but it provides students with good, wholesome meals that are filling.
“The way society is now, sometimes school lunches are the only real meal kids will get all day,” Rommelfanger said. “We need those meals to be healthy; the healthier, the better.”
Michelle George can be reached at (740) 681-4342 or firstname.lastname@example.org