School meals take planning

FAIRMONT – Feeding up to 1,800 students and staff each school day is a daunting mission. The constant challenge is compounded when coupled with frequent changes in government-mandated nutritional guidelines.

Stephanie Langhofer, food service director for Fairmont Area Schools, meets that challenge with support from John Durtschi, district manager for Chartwells, which manages the district’s food service program.

The district is beginning its fourth year contracting with Chartwells.

Langhofer, who previously worked as a kitchen manager, is in her second year heading the Fairmont school program.

“We try to find things that will attract kids to food service,” she said.

Any unpopular item is eliminated and replaced with a new item.

“It’s a lot of planning,” Durtschi said.

In addition to pleasing young palates, nutritional rules must be followed.

“This year, all grains in the program have to be whole grains,” Durtschi said.

Whole grains already constituted about 80 percent of grain products consumed by Fairmont students. That includes buns, pasta and pizza crusts, all of which have a different flavor, profile and appearance than the traditional “white breads.”

The rapidly approaching start of the new term will see other changes in the food program as well. A free hot breakfast at the junior-senior high school will debut. Students can opt for items such as pancakes or an egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich.

Bus students arrive at 7:45 a.m. and will have ample time to gather in the commons to eat before the start of classes at 8:20 a.m., Langhofer said.

Students at Fairmont Elementary School have been enjoying free breakfast for a year. At those grade levels, students eat in their classrooms and are served a cereal bar, juice or milk and fruit. This year, guidelines call for two fruits at breakfast, which Durtschi calls “a positive move.”

Elementary students don’t have a choice for their noon meal, but several options are available at the high school.

“They get to pick from two hot sandwiches, two pizza choices, the entree, a deli sandwich and a chef or Caesar salad,” Durtschi said. “Fruits and vegetables – we allow students to take unlimited amounts.”

A past complaint about cold food will be eliminated this year, due to additional equipment being installed at the high school. While the elementary school has had the proper elements, the new equipment at the high school should eradicate beefs about food temperature.

No additional employees will be added because of the new breakfast program, Langhofer said. A staff of 18 handles the cooking and serving duties at Fairmont’s two schools.

“The first cook is here at 6:30 a.m.,” she said. “The last one is usually gone by 2:30 p.m.”

Staggered arrival and departure times result in an average work day of about five hours.

Langhofer debunks the rumor that food served in Fairmont is trucked in from the Twin Cities.

“All food is made on site at both schools every day,” she said, adding that even the pasta meat sauce is made from scratch.

She also downplays the belief that kids are picky.

“They’re all very good. Kids are more willing to try new things,” she said.

School lunches cost $2.60 at the elementary school and $2.70 at the high school. Adult meals are $3.60.

Students whose family incomes qualify them for reduced-cost lunches now receive free meals, the result of legislative action last term. Instead of parents paying 40 cents for a reduced-cost meal, the state will subsidize that portion.