How Clear Lake School District is serving low-sodium menu items that students enjoy

The district recently received a Healthy School Meals Incentive grant to expand the number of scratch-made, low-sodium dishes on its menu.
Students eating in the cafeteria
Clear Lake students are getting to try new foods during through taste tests set up by the nutrition team. | Photo: Shutterstock

As the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) continues to make changes to its School Nutrition Standards, which dictate things like the amount of sodium and sugar allowed in school meals, the nutrition team at Clear Lake School District in Clear Lake, Iowa, has been trying to rework its menus to fit the USDA standards long before they go into effect.

“Rather than then be reactive, we've tried to be more proactive at it,” says Food Service Director Julie Udelhofen.

Over the past couple of years, for example, the team has focused on offering 100% whole-wheat items and serving low-sodium options.  

One of the main ways it’s trying to accomplish those goals is by revamping its menu to include more scratch-made meals using local ingredients. Those changes can carry a high price tag due to rising food costs and the kitchen equipment needed, so the nutrition team applied for a Healthy School Meals Incentive (HMI) grant offered through the USDA and nonprofit, Action for Healthy Kids.

The grant is intended to help nutrition teams at rural and small school districts tackle supply chain challenges and expand the number of local offerings on their menu.

Clear Lake was awarded approximately $88,000 in HMI grant funding to help them on their journey to serving low-sodium, scratch-made meals this school year.  

Focusing on local

One of the biggest ways the team hasreduced the sodium levels in its meals is by switching to fresh, local produce.

Unlike canned and other processed produce that leave operators with little control over the sodium content, fresh produce offers a blank slate for the nutrition team to work with.

“I am a big believer of local foods and serving fresh vegetables and fresh fruits, and those are naturally low in sodium,” says Udelhofen.

A variety of fresh produce is now being worked into the menu, including kale, parsnips and broccoli romanesco.

A portion of grant funding went toward purchasing a new walk-in cooler at the district’s middle school, to allow the team to have better storage for the local product.

Along with offering the new produce options, the team has also tried to keep sodium levels down by using their own sodium-free spice blends. A Greek blend, ranch blend and a buffalo blend are just some of the different spice options that are sprinkled on roasted vegetables and other entrees to provide a salt-free flavor-boost to dishes.

Using taste tests to educate and garner feedback

As the nutrition team makes changes to the menu, they have started hosting taste testing with students at the district’s elementary school, middle school and high school to get student feedback.

In addition to the walk-in cooler, a portion of the grant funding went toward hiring a marketing specialist to create different marketing materials, like posters, to display during the taste tests. The marketing specialist has also worked with the team to create a newsletter and a website that showcases all the new local offerings being provided to students.

At the elementary school, the taste tests are utilized mostly as a way to expose the younger students to new things. As students sample the featured produce, they get to speak with the team and learn a little bit about what it is they’re eating.

Often, the students aren’t able to provide their feedback since the lunch period for them is so busy.

“A lot of times, it's really just to expose the kids to the food and do a little education,” says Udelhofen.

At the district’s middle school, however, students do get to share their feedback since it’s a smaller school.

The nutrition team sets up a table right in the cafeteria and students are invited to come up during lunch to sample and then share their feedback on a type of produce or dish. The taste tests at the middle school level have been great for the team, Udelhofen says, since the students are typically happy and eager to share their thoughts.

In some cases, there have even been some items that the team didn’t anticipate would be so popular with students.

“One of the middle school tests was peppers and we had several different varieties of peppers, and they loved the hot peppers,” says Udelhofen. “I never would have guessed that.”

High schoolers also participate in taste testing; however, it’s been a little harder to get them to engage and share their feedback, Udelhofen admits.

The team has played around with different formats at the high school level, including offering the samples on the lunch line and setting up a separate table similar to the middle school, but still haven’t found the correct format they think is right for that age level. Next school year, they are exploring having the students themselves help run the taste tests to see if that will encourage more engagement.

While the team is still figuring out the best way to run the high school taste tests, overall, the student reception to the new menu additions and taste tests has been overwhelmingly positive, says Udelhofen, and students notice when scratch-made meals are on the menu.

“We started making mashed potatoes with regular potatoes with the skins on,” she says.  “When we first started serving it to the kids they went, ‘What is that?’ Now, when we run out of them and we use the instant potatoes, they go, ‘Oh, where are the good potatoes?’”



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