School districts still adjusting to new lunch standards
Smaller portions and increased prices spelled trouble last fall for some school cafeterias.
Lunch purchases plummeted in many districts such as Plum where participation rates at both Oblock Junior High and Plum High School decreased more than 50 percent the first week of classes last year after students joined in a social-media driven protest.
The decreases affected districts' bottom lines, administrators said.
Participation rebounded throughout the year but did not return to the pre-protest levels, food service directors said.
The protests were triggered by new federal mandates that resulted in servings of fruits and vegetables every day. The cafeterias also were required to increase offerings of whole-grain rich foods. Calorie limits also were set.
The changes required by a 2010 federal law called the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act are the most significant in decades, nutritionists and school lunch directors said.
District food service directors said they learned from last year's student reaction and are tweaking menus for the new school year in an attempt to bring more students back.
At Quaker Valley, reaction wasn't like that at Plum. Even still, food services director Jennifer Reiser is slightly tweaking the lunch menu to appeal to students' taste buds and serve healthier foods.
“This year I am adding more homemade fresh dough pizzas at the middle school and occasionally at the elementary school,” said Reiser, who is a registered dietitian.
Reiser also plans to serve a “wild west burger” and more flatbreads.
“We are trying to mimic what children eat when they go to restaurants and make [the foods] healthy to meet the school guidelines,” she said.
Quaker Valley students will see a 10-cent increase in lunch prices — from $2.50 to $2.60 — when classes start later this month.
Like Quaker Valley students, those in Plum and some other districts also will find some new menu selections some of which will appeal to those who like a little zest mixed in with healthy.
Plum School District food Supervisor Maryann Lazzaro plans to introduce spicy popcorn chicken and a spicy grilled chicken sandwich at the high school. Reduced-fat swiss and cheddar cheeses also will be on the deli bar.
Junior high students also will have more Asian food selections.
Like Quaker Valley, Plum has an in-house food service operation.
“We want to get them to try something new and accept it,” Lazzaro said.
Franklin Regional School District, where school lunch participation rates last year also took a dive, also has new menu items.
Sunny Burns, food service director for Metz Culinary Management – the district's food service company – said students will find Indian and Asian food on the line.
Also, meatless Mondays are planned.
“It's a new twist,” Burns said. “We're going to serve some spicy food. It is healthy and lower in sodium.”
Metz also is working on a gluten-free menu for students with certain diet restrictions. Gluten is found in wheat and other grains.
Lazzaro also has a new feature in the Plum elementary buildings, aimed at students in kindergarten through second grade.
“‘YO2GO'is a meat alternative,” Lazzaro said.
Students can purchase in a resealable bag a yogurt, cereal and goldfish crackers or graham crackers and string cheese.
“A lot of little ones don't like meat,” Lazzaro said. “The YO2GO is another option that meets federal guidelines.”
Lunch prices in the Plum School District are not being increased this year. The elementary lunch is $2.15, and secondary is $2.50.
A slight increase is proposed in school lunch prices in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District. The proposed price is $1.90 in the elementary buildings and $2.15 at the secondary level, food service director Tammy Caponi said.
Caponi said the school board's decision last year to switch from an outside food service company to doing the job in-house improved the quality of menus, and thus helped soften the blow when the federal mandates took effect.
“We weren't hit that hard,” Caponi said.
Caponi plans no major menu changes this year. Rather, Caponi is working with her staff on making foods look appealing to students.
“It's presentation,” Caponi said. “We put the fruit out in front and make sure the vegetable colors are great.”
Lazzaro looks forward to a successful year.
“There is nothing here that I wouldn't eat or not serve my family,” Lazzaro said. “We are 110 percent committed to the nutrition of children.”
Karen Zapf is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400 ext. 8753 or firstname.lastname@example.org.