Seventh-graders make a difference

Three middle school students came together, voiced their opinion in a professional manner and instituted a change on behalf of their fellow peers.

Wapakoneta Middle School seventh-grade students Adam and Alex Walter and Nolan Benny became the spokesmen for their school as they voiced their concerns over their school lunch menu — involving sweet potato fries.

“When we first had the sweet potato fries, we saw no one was eating them,” Benny said. “People were throwing them away and it was wasted.”

The new menu item, sweet potato fries, was incorporated into the school’s lunch menu as a healthy alternative to french fries.

Vegetables that have bright colors are usually high in anti-oxidants. Sweet potatoes falls in this category as they are a good source of vitamin A and have antioxidants.

“We are allowed one half cup serving of starchy vegetables each week,” Wapakoneta City School District Food Service Supervisor and certified Dietary Manager Lori McKean said.

With federal regulations for schools lunches changing in the 2012-13 school year, McKean is incorporating some of the changes in small amounts this year.

“The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has encouraged us to implement small changes now to prepare for larger changes next school year,” McKean said.

With the new USDA requirement, McKean said students only receive french fries once a week. She also introduced sweet potato fries to the menu twice a month — which served as a substitution for the the french fries two weeks out of the month.

But a problem arose. The sweet potato fries did not receive positive feedback from the students, so Adam, Alex and Nolan decided to take a stand and let McKean know.

“We thought that this was an opportunity, so why not take it,” Alex said.

“Lori didn’t know how people were liking them, and she was glad we brought it to her attention,” Nolan said.

The three students went to extensive measures to get feedback from the students — including taking a poll and having students sign petitions.

Approximately 1,085 Wapakoneta Middle School students signed a petition noting that they did not like the sweet potato fries.

They also polled the majority of the seventh-grade class and some of the sixth-grade students, and said that 98 percent polled did not like the sweet potato fries and 2 percent did like them.

“We were inspired by Rachel’s Challenge,” Adam said. “Rachel’s Challenge is about a girl who went to Columbine (High School) and how she used to help people.”

Rachel’s Challenge is about the first victim, Rachel Scott, who was killed in the Columbine High School shootings. This program, which is implemented at Wapakoneta City Schools, is inspired by her many journal writings that spread her message worldwide through educational and corporate presentations.

“We thought about this and we wanted to help people and what they want and stand up for them,” Nolan said.

The students talked with the Wapakoneta Middle School administration, and Wapakoneta Middle School Assistant Principal Wes Newland took this as a civil opportunity for them.

“I have been intrigued and impressed with their attitudes to make progress,” Newland said. “They did a great job to communicate in a resourceful manner.”

So Newland set up a meeting with Alex, Adam and Nolan to meet with McKean and Wapakoneta Middle School Cafeteria Manager Mary Clementz-McBeth to discuss the issue.

Newland said that when the students had their meeting, they dressed up in suits and ties and presented themselves in a professional manner.

When the students met with McKean and Clementz-McBeth in December, they discussed with them the feedback of the sweet potato fries, so this led to a compromising decision.

“We are going to offer more choices. We will put out a fresh vegetable when the sweet potatoes are offered,” McKean said. “We will give them options, like celery and a dip, baby carrots and a dip or salad.”

In addition, the sweet potato fries will be only be offered once a month, and regular french fries three days a month.

McKean said she was glad to receive some feedback in such a mature manner.

“I was really proud of them,” McKean said. “Instead of complaining, they stepped up and took responsibility and it shows that they could change something. I love input on the menu from the students.”

McKean said that this goes to show that one person, or three in this case, can create an atmosphere of change.

The participation at the middle school of students who purchase their lunch is at 80 percent. She said this is a good rate compared to other schools, and she wants to serve her customers and give them what they want, all while following USDA standards.

This meeting has also a new avenue for the school — to incorporate a Cafeteria Council.

Adam, Alex and Nolan, along with representatives from the sixth- and fifth-grades, will meet with McKean and Clementz-McBeth once a month to give them feedback, not just about the sweet potato fries but about the lunch menu and the entire atmosphere of the cafeteria.

The students learned about the USDA standards for the lunch menu, and were educated on professional skills, such as hosting a meeting.

“We learned a lot by doing this,” Alex said.

“We learned a lot about how the (school menu) system works,” Nolan said. “I hope this encourages other students to stand up. It was a good experience for the future.”