From “mystery meat” to meals that are rich with fresh produce, whole grain, and lean protein, the roots of school food service run long and deep. After World War II, federal government officials got wind of claims that many American men had been rejected for military service because of diet-related problems. Thus, in 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed the National School Lunch Act, which created the school lunch program. Today, the roughly $10 billion program feeds more than 31 million students across the country.


Healthy Changes

Now, school districts nationwide are tweaking menus to meet new nutritional standards for school lunches mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture regulations went into effect this year.

The law marks the first major update to the National School Lunch Program guidelines in 15 years. The new rules are intended to boost the nutritional quality of meals eaten by schoolchildren. In a nutshell, the new school meal standards make sure students’ lunches and breakfasts have more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; low-fat dairy products; and less sodium and fat. Also, there is a focus on sensible portions and calories.

Food for Thought

Cecily Upton, co-founder of FoodCorps, a national organization that strives to give all youths enduring relationships with healthy food, is pleased with the changes, but acknowledges that challenges remain.

“As a friend of mine once noted, school lunches are the only part of the school experience (on which) we actually expect to break even or turn a profit,” Upton explains. “Everything else in the school day runs at a loss.”

Basically, this is how the system works: Schools get cash and free agricultural commodities, such as tomatoes, meat, and cheese. In return, the schools must offer free and reduced-price lunches to low-income families. The federal government reimburses districts $2.86 for each free meal, $2.46 for a reduced-price meal, and 27 cents for full-price meals. The reimbursement rates are the same for every school nationwide, regardless of meal cost.

Under the new Child Nutrition Act, school districts now also are eligible for an additional six cents per meal if the meals meet certain standards. These standards include following a specific meal pattern, such as serving a different type of vegetable each day of the week.

Still, Upton admits that even with new federal incentives, virtually every region of the country, including Reno and Lake Tahoe-Truckee, struggles with limited resources to invest in school lunch programs.

“So quality can suffer when you’re forced to approach it as a business venture rather than an investment in our children’s long-term health,” she says. “It often takes a team effort of food service, school administration, and community partners to reimagine school lunch.”

Fortunately, two school districts in our region have developed just the kind of dream teams that Upton envisions. These dedicated foot soldiers for healthy change have learned how to creatively navigate complex government funding, commodity speculation, and menu formulas. Paramount to their efforts is a belief that real change will not occur without a solid foundation of education — in the cafeteria, classroom, and community.

They are propelled by the notion that what students eat has an enormous impact on their health — today and tomorrow. Indeed, poor diet is linked to a laundry list of chronic diseases, including diabetes and obesity — an epidemic among American children. What’s more, studies show that poor diet affects a child’s ability to concentrate and learn.

Starting from Scratch

Stroll around the Kings Beach Elementary School cafeteria at lunchtime and you’ll get on-the-ground research and development that can’t be found in any well-meaning school board PowerPoint presentation.

Today, chatty youngsters file through the lunch line, receiving hot lunch trays that include chicken teriyaki and brown rice, a green salad, and an imposing piece of fresh cantaloupe. At the checkout stand, an observant lunch clerk sends one student back as his salad is devoid of a carrot. Later, settled at the quintessential long, folding lunch table, the consensus with the third graders is that scratch-made food is “way better.”

This is music to the ears of Kat Soltanmorad, a registered dietitian and director of food services for Tahoe Truckee Unified School District.

“This is a big team effort and we are a small district,” she explains.

The district is unique in its mission to provide scratch-made meals. Cooking from scratch is a blessing and a curse. On the upside, the department can have a say in what goes into each and every entrée — no artificial additives, preservatives, excessive sodium, or high-fructose. The outcome is tastier and healthier than the pre-packaged foods that used to be transferred to the school, then reheated for lunch. On the downside, the fresh, unprocessed meals cost more to produce.

“To me, scratch cooking encompasses nutrition principles essential to maintaining or improving health,” Soltanmorad says. “Using less processed, fresh and nutrient-dense foods provides our students sustenance to achieve academic success. The cafeteria is an extension of the school day; learning doesn’t stop at breakfast or lunch.”

Soltanmorad estimates that perhaps only 10 percent of school districts in the United States use this model for food service.

“And to my knowledge, there is not a scratch-cooked food service in California operating in the black,” she adds.

When Soltanmorad stepped into her current position a year ago, the district had already taken a cold, hard look at its faltering food services department, which was not operating in the black.

Group Effort

One strong voice was the Tahoe Truckee Nutrition Coalition, a group of parents, teachers, school administrators, and dietitians that has been working to promote improvements in school meals for more than seven years. Under the leadership of parent Beth Pascalli Hirsh, the group suggested a complete re-evaluation of the district kitchens by an independent K-12 child nutritional consulting firm.

The firm’s findings were taken to heart by the district, which developed short-term goals that addressed school site production and equipment challenges, as well as fiscally sound and nutrient-dense menu options for students.

The district implemented several of the recommendations by the consulting firm, such as improving meal participation by offering a second-chance breakfast, which is offered at recess in addition to the standard before-school meal. For kids who are in a rush and miss morning breakfast, the second-chance option is a godsend.

“It also increased our breakfast participation on average by 2,000 meals per month,” Soltanmorad says.

As a former nutrition coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education, which encompasses seven school districts and 80 schools, Soltanmorad knows her way around state and federal funding mechanisms. However, she admits that the state and federal USDA reimbursements aren’t enough to cover the costs of providing fresh, unprocessed meals for students daily.

To make up the difference, the district has gotten creative with green cost-saving measures that include recycling, and waste and energy reduction. This year the TTUSD Green Team eliminated the use of plastic forks and straws at one school and hopes to entice other schools to jump on the bandwagon.

Still, what gets Soltanmorad excited is promoting healthy eating from kindergarten on up. The educational aspect is key, she says. The longstanding Harvest of the Month program allows children to taste and learn about a different fruit or vegetable each month, and the Students’ Choice menu program offers kids a voice in what they eat.

Soltanmorad is succinct when asked about the future.

“In five years, our goals include our department being financially independent and having a central kitchen in place with either a Grow Dome or a garden that produces for the kitchen,” she says. “That, and sequential nutrition education offered at all grades throughout the district.”

The Gold Standard

While school districts across the nation scramble to meet the new nutritional standards for school lunches, Washoe County School District has it in the bag, thanks to Tony Cook, the director of nutrition services, and his team.

District officials adopted the tenets of the new federal guidelines early in the game and now the district is the gold standard for school food service, as it meets or exceeds all requirements. But things weren’t always so stellar, says Cook, who has been with the district and its food-service partner, ARAMARK, for three years.

“Essentially, we started with a program that in 2008 had 66 percent, or a D, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s annual school lunch report card,” Cook says.

To receive a high grade, schools must go above and beyond USDA nutrition guidelines, and that’s just what Washoe County School District officials did in 2010 after proactive school board members decided things needed to change.

“This year, the district improved its score by 22 points … basically from a D to a B+,” Cook says.

The PCRM describes the district’s impressive GPA jump this way: “In 2008, Washoe served healthful vegetarian options about once a week, and it offered no nutrition education or innovative food programs. Now, vegetarian entrées are served three to four times a week and are clearly marked on the menu. The district also operates the USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program in 34 schools, and some schools now have gardens.”

Catrina Peters, nutrition programs professional for the Nevada Department of Agriculture, says the national kudos are well deserved.

“[The district has] done a phenomenal job,” she says. “They are very progressive in the variety of foods they offer the kids and the emphasis on buying local foods. The USDA does not require them to buy local foods. In so many areas, they go above and beyond.”

In a school district that is home to 102 schools and serves about 8 million meals per year, the challenges are mind boggling. The winning recipe here can be attributed to a cost-saving centralized kitchen, savvy commodity “brokering,” and a collaboration of state and local agencies that pitch in with nutrition education initiatives.

“The biggest challenge is trying to do all of it economically and environmentally friendly as the gas and food costs continue to go off the charts,” Cook says. “We try to manage all of it and keep it at a price point that people can afford. Plus, we continually look for opportunities to improve the menu from the student-choice perspective, while still keeping it healthy.”

One such opportunity is with the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program that was established at 34 WCSD elementary schools. Under the grant program, students receive fresh produce separately from their breakfasts and lunches. Only fresh fruits and vegetables — not frozen, canned, or dried — are offered.

“These are at-risk schools where 50 percent or more of the children receive free or reduced meals,” Cook explains. “We are giving these kids exposure to produce from local farms in Northern Nevada, but also things like star fruit from Vietnam.”

Good Response

Across the board, the student diners are responding to the district’s efforts favorably. During the last two years, the percentage of students who eat lunches provided by WCSD increased by 14 percent.

“That tells me that the quality of food and the variety of options that we are offering is making a difference,” Cook says.

He admits that kids still write him letters, mourning the loss of junk-food favorites such as nachos with fake cheese.

“When I get those letters, we send out ACE the fox, our nutrition mascot, who helps kids to understand about healthy eating though educational games,” Cook says.

Education is a crucial component in successful school lunch programs. And as any parent can attest, kids don’t always like things the first time.

“It takes seven to 15 times trying something new for a child to eat and accept it,” Peters explains. “We work hard to encourage schools to offer healthy foods and the public wants to see healthy food offered, but if the kids don’t choose to eat it, we all have a healthy trash can!”

Peters admits the field of school lunch is rife with monumental challenges. However, she contends that the USDA, school districts, and site staffers are working hard to make a difference.

“It is easy to cast light on the challenges and limitations, but there are some great examples of success out there,” Peters says. “By staying positive and being creative, it is possible to get kids not only to eat healthy food, but to be excited about it!”

Lake Tahoe-based Ann Lindemann is a frequent contributor to edible Reno-Tahoe. She wishes she could have a childhood do-over and enjoy the kinds of thoughtfully prepared lunches that are served in WCSD and TTUSD today.

Farm Fresh Nutrition

Northern Nevada is upping the school-lunch ante by introducing fresh local produce into the nutrition game. The catchall phrase for this effort is “farm-to-school,” and it covers a broad range of activities, including school gardens, local farm tours, and, above all, getting locally grown foods into school cafeterias and supplemental meal programs.

“All (these) areas are important pieces in the effort to get kids to learn about food and get excited about healthy food choices,” explains Catrina Peters, nutritional programs professional for Nevada Department of Education.

In October 2012, the Nevada Department of Agriculture received a $90,000 farm-to-school grant to address key food safety issues and provide training for food service directors. Currently, these are the two biggest challenges in Northern Nevada’s farm-to-school programing.

“Farm-to-school is growing rapidly and there is more interest than ever,” Peters says.

To date, produce from Lattin Farms in Fallon and Nevada Fresh Pak in Yerington has been served in Washoe County School District’s fresh fruit and vegetable program. Additionally, local milk from Model Dairy is served to all Washoe County School District children.

Kristi Jamason, who heads up strategic initiatives for the Food Bank of Northern Nevada, says farm-to-school programming is difficult in Nevada as most of the farms are too small to produce enough to serve the 50,000-plus meals required each school day. However, this past summer the food bank decided to integrate local produce into its supplemental summer lunch program, dubbed Kids Cafe.

Each summer, the food bank purchases 2,000-plus meals per day from the district to serve children in area parks. Jamason says the pilot program is a great way to help the local agricultural economy and bring fresh, healthy foods to kids who may have limited access to such foods. What’s more, it’s not unusual for a participating farmer to stop by during meal service and chat about his or her farm. At press time, the program had successfully used veggies from Avanzino Farms of Reno and Nevada Fresh Pak.

“The benefits are far reaching — children eating the freshest, most nutrient-dense foods possible, farmers having a new market for their produce and keeping dollars in the local economy,” Jamason says. “Even at 2,000 meals per day, there are few farms that have the capacity to supply enough at one time for all the meals. The challenges are many, but we are determined!”

Department Switch

Nevada child nutrition programs move to department of agriculture.

The Nevada Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Division now administers all USDA-funded child nutrition programs in Nevada, including the National School Lunch Program. Previously housed at the Nevada Department of Education, the program was formally moved on July 1, 2013 as a result of this year’s legislative session. The office was moved along with USDA Foods (formerly the Commodity Foods Program) and the Nevada Dairy Commission in an effort to consolidate related efforts.

Prior to the consolidation, Nevada was one of only a few states where child nutrition programs were not housed along with commodity foods. Now Nevada’s National School Lunch Program is housed within the state department of agriculture.

“I personally think the consolidation makes sense in several ways,” says Catrina Peters, nutrition programs professional for the Nevada Department of Agriculture. “Commodity foods plays a huge part in what foods make it onto the lunch tray. We work with the same school districts and nonprofits and our funding streams both come from USDA — as opposed to the department of education, whose main funding stream comes from the United States Department of Education.”

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