When it’s lunch time in Monongalia County Schools, that’s where you’ll find Brian Kiehl.
Kiehl, who directs child nutrition services for the district, makes it a point to hit a different cafeteria every day.
He gets there after the food is served, so he can watch the tables and look in on the proceedings in the kitchen.
And when the bell rings for class, Kiehl, who started in the district as a bus driver-turned-cook, makes it a point to talk to the chief chronicler of how the fare was enjoyed —– or not enjoyed.
That would be the custodian staffing the lunchroom, he told Mon Board of Education members last week.
In other words, if the garbage can isn’t overflowing with uneaten food from dumped trays, he knows the menu was a success.
These days, he’s worried that students will stop eating lunch served up by Mon Schools altogether.
And that’s because the current dietary changes proposed for the federal school lunch program just aren’t all that appealing, he said.
It’s not because there’s a bureaucratic bent to healthy items, he said, in his remarks to the board.
It is, he said, because those restrictions on sugar, sodium and other particulars are going to make menus pretty barren in the years ahead, should those dietary proposals be enacted.
County cooks, Kiehl said, do a good job of whipping up nutritional fare here.
However, while Mon’s public school district is one of the more prosperous in West Virginia, the shadow of food insecurity — a condition of poverty where one literally can’t eat enough to sustain one’s self nutritionally — still trails out long and broad here.
Breakfast and lunch in school, the nutrition director said, might be the only substantial food a child will consume that day, depending upon his economic circumstances at home.
And if said student doesn’t like what’s on the menu, and consigns it to the garbage can in the corner of the cafeteria, that means a wasted chance for a balanced meal.
Especially, Kiehl said, if the kid tears into the empty calories of a bag of chips in his backpack or at home at the end of the school day because he’s hungry.
U.S. agricultural officials last month proposed new standards of nutrition, designed to decrease levels of added sugars and sodium, while upping the intake of whole grains.
That policy, all 280 pages of it, went out Feb. 3 for a 60-day comment period.
Visit https://www.fns.usda.gov/cn/proposed-updates-school-nutrition-standards to view it and to submit your comments by April 10.
All its proposals, if it’s adopted, will be phased into school menus by 2029.
And, as he said, those changes are painfully pragmatic.
Perennial lunch favorites like deep-dish pizza and macaroni and cheese? Gone, by decade’s end.
French fries? Those too.
The proposed changes could mean salads without dressings, sandwiches without condiments and the demise of chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk, with their pint cartons and straws, for the younger grades.
On Mon’s lunch menus, he said, the fun things are in there with the things that are good for you, too.
It’s the culinary dance, he said, between what is appealing, and healthy, at the same time.
This school year, his department also launched “food courts” laden with fresh fruits at University High School, Morgantown High and South Middle that have proven popular with students.
The trial offering is also part of the county’s free breakfast and lunch initiatives in its schools.
Kiehl isn’t sure if the proposed federal changes on school lunches are all that digestible, he said, given that everything is being stripped quickly from the menu.
So, he came up with a proposal of his own.
He wants to launch a pilot program at University High School, taking the lunch menu out from under the federal program — with all those restrictions — in order to go with its own nutritional fare.
“Our school system has the best cooks in the state,” he said.
And the district office is staffed with its own nutritionists — to make sure lunch in all those cafeterias he visits is just that.
“The idea is to have more students eating free meals by providing healthy and appealing entrée options,” Kiehl said.
Menus, he said, that would contain all the healthy beverages (opposed to the sugary, caffeine-loaded ones many students bring to school with them now), along with all the arrays of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, of which already make up close to 100% of Mon’s offerings.
A la carte offerings would also be there for more variety, he said, at $2 apiece for each menu item, under the UHS proposal.
The goal, Kiehl said, would be to gauge how the Mon-mandated menu would compare with the federal one.
While the BOE agreed on the proposal, Kiehl still has to order from the state’s menu.
Right now, it’s still food for thought, he said, in that it won’t be a go unless Charleston says it is.
If the state grants permission, the run will be this coming school year at UHS.
“We’ll sign the waiver and see what happens.”