School nutritionist cooks up new options for students
Changes are on the menu for the Watauga County school system, with school nutritionist Nicole Mayernik seeking student and parent feedback on food items.
Mayernik is planning menus with parent groups and student groups, with individual food sampling at all the schools, to get input from students and staff to see if they approve of potential new menu items.
"I'm looking for a restaurant chef or two to actually come in and help us with food presentation and training to vary the menu a little more," Mayernik said. "What can we do with corn and green beans besides salt them and put butter on them?"
In January, Mayernik will begin working on a new menu and food-development design for the new high school. That will include the types of foods to be offered, including a "Grab-and-go" and potential mini-breaks that could offer more opportunities to serve food to students throughout the day.
Since about 16 percent of students are vegan or vegetarian, Mayernik would like to expand protein options as well.
Mayernik said it was a challenge to satisfy nutritional requirements while still giving students the food they prefer, and at the same time meeting a budget. "At each of the nine schools, I should be able to walk in and see people preparing the same food items the same way," she said.
"If we involved students, administrators, and parents along the way, the better people understand the regulations, the better off we are. It's a matter of seeing what's involved and letting the community know we are here to provide quality food while meeting quality guidelines.
We also want to make parents' lives easier by not making lunches at home."
Mayernik said students generally preferred convenience foods such as chicken nuggets, beef-and-cheese nachos, Salisbury steaks and Hawaiian chicken and pizza pockets.
"People only think about child nutrition for lunch, but I'd like to remind people that we have breakfast options every day," Mayernik said.
Those include cereal, oatmeal, waffles, French toast sticks, sausage biscuits and bagels, among other choices.
Calories, portion size, fat and sodium levels, as well as certain vitamin and mineral elements, are an important part of meal planning.
"There's more of a push to get in whole grains," Mayernik said. "We've started making our rolls with whole-wheat flour."
Recent changes include the online pre-pay programs, because some parents want to check on the items their children are buying. Sometimes children charge food to their accounts if they don't have money, and Mayernik said it's important that those accounts be settled by the end of the year. If a parent's income changes, the information can be changed on lunch applications at any time and perhaps create eligibility for free- or reduced-price lunches.
"We want people to let us know what they want," Mayernik said.
"I love the feedback and I love the phone calls. It makes sense to involve the children in menu planning because that is who we are serving."
The school lunchrooms will be providing some recycling, starting with plastic bottles. Though the program is school-wide, the cafeterias will be part of the effort, Mayernik said. Maintenance director Dennis Ray is exploring grants to get more collection bins for the school system.
"Right now we just want to start small and work out the kinks," Mayernik said.
Currently, recycling Styrofoam is not practical because of cost. Styrofoam trays are still used sometimes when there aren't enough plastic trays or an available dishwasher.
Mayernik said reusable trays sometimes accidentally get thrown away, along with utensils, but overall the costs are similar to those involved with disposable trays and utensils. However, when a cafeteria staff is short-handed, it's difficult to wash the reusable trays.
Mayernik said composting food waste has been discussed, though she is searching for a school district that currently composts its food waste.
She said it would require separate bins and a commitment at the individual school level.
While planning for the future, she is open to input on meals, food choices, and programs.
Mayernik can be reached at (828) 264-7190 ext. 217 or (firstname.lastname@example.org)