Summer food programs for kids across the metro area are ready to swap sandwiches for dishes with a bit more intrigue, from Asian-inspired noodles to build-your-own chicken nachos.
Many of the federally funded programs, which offer free meals to students age 18 and under throughout the summer, will start serving next week. The hope, school officials say, is that the new menus attract more hungry kids to the programs.
In the St. Paul district, more than 30,000 students have free or reduced meals during the school year, but fewer than 8,000 take advantage of those meals in the summer, said Angie Gaszak, a district nutrition specialist.
So this year, summer meal sites are testing out a few ethnic options to better represent the foods that some of their diverse diners eat at home. When the food program begins on Tuesday, Asian noodles and pan dulce, a traditional Hispanic sweet bread, will be on the menu rotation.
“We want to make sure there’s a lot of variety,” Gaszak said. “We’ve tried to do baby steps in introducing more ethnic food items into our menus.”
Some of the dishes needed recipe changes to meet nutritional guidelines. The district’s version of pan dulce, for example, will skip the fryer and provide students instead with a baked, whole-grain, low-sugar treat.
If the trial food items go well, they may become regular additions to the school-year menu. And students, she said, are never mum on the issue. “Kids readily share their opinions about food,” she said.
For Minneapolis summer food programs, this year’s menu changes aim to avoid the humdrum routine of picnic-style entrees.
“One of our struggles is making the cold food appealing and appetizing when we are in situations where we can’t serve hot food,” said Sara Eugene, the district’s coordinator of extended meals.
For inspiration, they turned to Lunchables. Healthy twists on make-your-own pizza and chicken nachos will both appear on the menu this summer.
“There’s been this negative connotation that it’s just sandwiches every day, which sometimes turns kids and families away,” Eugene said. “This is a way to keep things fun and exciting.”
In the Anoka-Hennepin School District, summer food program coordinators hope that adding hot items to the menu will help spice up lunchtime. Hot dogs, cheese pizza, hamburgers and chicken sandwiches will all appear as summer cuisine options.
The program served more than 50,000 meals last summer, and the goal is to boost that number by keeping the food options fresh, said Noah Atlas, the district’s director of child nutrition.
“We haven’t always had a lot of participation,” Atlas said. “Our hope is that the students who are there will want to eat more often and that over time it will draw more students in.”