School lunches get a makeover

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All the menu options considered initially must meet strict USDA requirements for school meals and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The Act stems from the “Let’s Move” campaign, and focuses on upping nutritional value, reducing childhood obesity, and increasing student accessibility to proper meals. Photo Courtesy of USDA

School lunches! Appetizing, right? Well, maybe it’s not the food we daydream about. But Tacoma Public Schools is reconsidering their menus to make them the best they can be. They have their hands full too. In the 2016-17 school year, Tacoma Public Schools had a district total of 29,091 students, approximately 60 percent, having received free or a reduced price lunch. That’s a lot of hungry mouths to feed.

While they adjust menus for the coming school year, TPS wants to ensure that kids are getting the most out of what the school can offer them. But it’s not easy to please everyone.

Nikol Stemp, a facilitator for TPS Nutrition Services, notes that all the menu options considered initially must meet strict USDA requirements for school meals and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The Act stems from the “Let’s Move” campaign, and focuses on upping nutritional value, reducing childhood obesity, and increasing student accessibility to proper meals. 

“Keeping a variety of healthy choices in front of the students on a regular basis can lead to influencing their food decisions,” Stemp said. “We will always have pizza, burgers, etc., in school due to their longstanding popularity.” 

Alongside this she tells me that deciding the menu is a balancing act among healthy choices, budget and a product’s popularity. The interests don’t always align.

Foods can come and go in cafeterias for a myriad of reasons: factors may include anything from product availability and market pricing to the number of spill incidences of the tomato soup now banished from elementary cafeterias. However, the menu builders decided to try something new this year by asking the students about their food directly.

Eating in the cafeteria every day, you get to know the ins and outs of what to grab and what to avoid. With this in mind, Paul Scott, director of TPS Nutrition and Food Services, and TPS Nutrition Services Field Assistant Kathy McKibbin-Manuel, rounded up a couple students to ask the experts their opinions.

The focus group was the first of its kind. Four boys were selected by the principal of Lowell Elementary. They sat down with Scott and McKibbin-Manuel to taste test new products and speak to the old ones. Amongst the new potential products, fan favorites were a “healthy pizza” with sweet potato crust, and 100 percent frozen juice slushies – cherry limeade, grape and kiwi – in collapsing packets. If possible, Stemp says, they like to endeavor in following intriguing food trends to heighten students’ interest. Lowell’s pizza croissants were evidently one such trend, however the product was met with strong rejection after its introduction to the lunchroom. “Something went awry between the time the manufacturer of the pizza croissants provided the district with tasty samples and when bulk pizza croissants of lesser quality showed up in the lunchrooms,” according to Stemp. All four of the Lowell boys said if one thing on the menu had to go, that’d be it. Scott was well aware of the problem and had already pulled the pizza croissants from the menu.

Schools give their students a variety of options along with unlimited servings of fruits and vegetables, of which there are at least eight different choices every day. But when all is said and done, the students still have the final say. TPS addresses this in their report on the focus group: “The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires students to take at least one serving per lunch. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, many students won’t eat the one serving, let alone indulge in more.”  To remedy this pattern, the group came to a consensus that it might be worthwhile to measure the amount of food waste that comes off children’s plates, as they often take the expected number of options only to toss them on their way out of the lunchroom. The study revealed that fish and tacos are regular culprits when it comes to this. One of the boys from the study suggested a “‘least wasted food’ competition between grade levels or schools” could stimulate more mindfulness of how much food gets thrown away.

Schools may very well do their best to offer up healthy food choices for their students, but Stemp remarks, “The foods only have nutritional value if the students eat them – so student acceptability across our broad and diverse community is essential.” Stemp says they’re making an attempt to have similar focus groups across many grade levels for the following school year.

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