The red flag that popped up during the SVM roundtable Monday afternoon was more of a red line, and a fine one to walk.
Every 5 years, the Illinois State Board of Education audits at least one school in each district to make sure its food program meets requirements of the National School Lunch Program. The United States Department of Agriculture soon will require those audits be conducted every 3 years.
In response to SVM's inquiry, the state board could provide no instances in which a Sauk Valley-area school failed any of the pass-fail audits, during which all records are scrutinized, down to checking the ounces of foods delivered.
Milledgeville High School Principal Paula Rademacher was pleased to hear the glowing reviews of her school's programs during the roundtable.
"Our head cook here really put forth the effort to make sure the students had plenty of fresh fruit and vegetable options," she said. "Fresh food is the key. It surprises me the number of elementary kids who are eating the fresh fruits and vegetables."
But what about those who aren't, whether because they don't like the healthy options, or because they're trying to lose weight? Without nutrition, the body will feast on its muscle and store more fat, counterproductive for those who skip lunch as a weight-loss strategy.
There is one school that has little to no worries on that subject – Newman High School, which for 6 years has enjoyed the services of Beth Summers. Once in charge of the kitchen and food program at St. Mary's Middle School, she says the best compliment she can receive is the blanket participation in the lunch program.
"We really do have a lot of kids who eat," she said, the words getting caught. "We have like 212 students, and we feed like 200 a day."
For Summers, it's one way of repaying her alma mater. Her daughters, Megan (2007) and Caitlin (2009), also graduated from Newman.
"I always say, 'They're my kids.' I want to take care of them," Summers said. "You've got some kids who don't care what they eat. But then you've got kids like Brady and Nick Rude, who are really into healthy lifestyle. You want to accommodate all the kids."
A private school, Newman isn't required to report to the state board her kitchen's records. But Summers keeps them anyway, for food cost's sake. She receives some produce from the Newman community each year, but spends a lot of her time over the weekend at the grocery.
"I have to, to keep the price low," Summers said. "I have to keep the food cost down, so every kid can eat."
And she accommodates virtually all requests.
"Our kitchen is open all day. The kids aren't supposed to come down in between classes, but they do," she said. "From the time I get there at 7:15 in the morning, there will be kids coming in and getting stuff until I leave at 3:30 that day."
If a student in the lunch line asks for a peanut butter sandwich, she'll stop and make it.
"Not all schools can do that," Summers said. "We're able to. I feel like I'm there for those kids. The teachers are feeding their brain. I'm feeding their belly. I want them to be able to enjoy their high school years."
But she and Rademacher acknowledge that their world is remarkably different from that of, say, Sterling High School.
"There's a big difference in preparing food for 200 kids, rather than 1,000 kids," Rademacher said. "It's very economical for us to offer a lot of the fresh fruits and vegetables."
That's why Newman athletic trainer Andy Accardi, who puts a major emphasis on teaching nutrition in his health classes, cherishes what can be done in small schools.
"As a health teacher, I constantly am asking myself: 'Am I teaching them how to read a nutritional facts label?'" Accardi said.
Each school-day morning, he allows his son, Christopher, who will be in second grade at St. Anne School in Dixon, to pack his own lunch. Then dad steps in for a quick audit of his own.
"We give them the power of choice, to some extent," Accardi said. "I'm trying to teach him to choose well. He might have two sweets in there, and I'll say, 'All right, buddy, let's get some fruit in there, or some applesauce.'
"It comes down to parental involvement. What are your kids taking for lunch?"
Beyond decisions in the home, he shudders to think about the meals being eaten by Dixon students, considering their open campus and Wendy's and McDonald's looming nearby.
"It's out of sight, out of mind, as long as they don't get in trouble and they come back," Accardi said. "The unwritten rule in Dixon is you don't go to Wendy's or McDonald's over lunch hour. It's gonna be packed."