by Richard Creaser
HOLLAND — School lunch administrators say the Obama Administsration’s Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act with its stringent nutrition guidelines, could force them to be creative in order to keep costs down. The new guidelines encourage more whole grains and vegetables and 1 percent or skim milk.
“I don’t think it’s really fair to put that much pressure on local schools,” Terry Lumbra said. Ms. Lumbra is the director of food services, and lone food service employee, at the Holland Elementary School. “Kids didn’t become obese because of school lunch but we’re the ones who apparently have to fix it.”
Because of the mandate, however, food service programs around the nation will have to make sure that children receive healthier meal options.
“We’ve been going in that direction for quite a few years,” said Rosie Pallotta, food service director at Orleans Elementary School. “I don’t think much will change. We just need to do more of what we’ve already been doing.”
Steering away from enriched white flour and making use of more whole grains is something area schools have been doing for the last few years, she said. Schools have also added a greater variety of fresh fruits and vegetables to the menu.
“I think the idea behind Healthy Hunger-Free kids is good,” Debi Hammond of Jay-Westfield Elementary said. “Introducing the kids to different food options is a positive step. What I worry about is the cost that will come along with it.”
Many schools are already dealing with underfunded food service programs. The pressure to add more vegetables and fruits, particularly in a climate with a limited local growing season, is going to increase costs, Ms. Hammond said. The net result will be greater subsidies from the general fund to offset deficits and increased prices for paid meals.
“We have been increasing our meal costs over the last few years and that’s something that I think we will have to see continue because of higher food costs and higher transportation costs,” Ms. Hammond said. “I can also see a time when our school garden will have to expand if we want to save some money.”
The Jay-Westfield Elementary School already boasts a sizeable garden, and produce harvested from that garden saves the lunch program hundreds of dollars every year.
But in order to meet the new guidelines and keep costs under control, the garden will likely have to get bigger, Ms. Hammond said. And the school will have to seek help from the community to harvest and maintain the garden.
Ms. Pallotta manages the garden at Orleans Elementary School. Tending the vegetable patch is a labor of love but one that takes an increasing toll on her time and energy.
“It would be nice if we could get more parents and more community members involved,” Ms. Pallotta said. “If people worked a few hours in the garden over the summer and brought some vegetables home, I would be fine with that. I would rather that food feeds people here in town than have it go to waste.”
The emphasis on fresh, healthier foods has steered food service providers away from processed foods. On the flip side, however, making more food in-house places a greater demand on the scant labor resources available in lunch rooms where one person does it all.
“I’ve never been a big fan of processed foods,” Ms. Lumbra said. “Whenever I can, I try to make everything in my own kitchen. But all of that takes time and the more time I have to spend doing paperwork, the less time I have to make things fresh.”
The federal government provides schools with commodity foods — food bought in bulk by the government, often to service federal agencies and departments. But that food isn’t always a boon to lunch programs.
“We got in some breaded, pre-cooked chicken patties that you just had to heat and serve,” Ms. Pallotta recalls. “When I took them out of the oven, they were swimming in grease. I couldn’t believe that they wanted me to serve that to the kids.”
The patties turned out to be popular with the children at Orleans who referred to them by the name of a popular fast food chicken outlet.
“This is a generation of kids who are used to quick meals, this fast food,” Ms. Pallotta said. “For a lot of them, this is what they are used to eating at home. I don’t blame the kids or the parents who have to work two jobs and just don’t have the time to make it from scratch.”
Eating patterns vary
What became apparent while looking at hot lunch programs is that eating patterns vary considerably from one community to the next. Hummus, a mixture of chickpeas, tahini and assorted herbs and spices, is popular with kids in Holland and Jay-Westfield but fell flat in taste tests at Orleans.
“I didn’t think they would go for it,” Ms. Lumbra said. “When I provided it as a dip for their veggie sticks, they really enjoyed it.”
“They just don’t care much for beans of any kind,” Ms. Pallotta said of her experience with the Middle Eastern dish. “Getting my kids to eat beans and finding ways to make them enjoy it, that’s going to be a challenge.”
What all three schools have found, however, is that younger students are more willing to try new foods than their older counterparts. That’s fairly consistent with data compiled by the Green Mountain Farm to School Program.
“Reaching them at a younger age is a key to developing healthy eating habits,” said Katherine Sims, executive director of Green Mountain Farm to School. “You need to start them young so that healthy eating becomes a part of their daily routine. In many cases kids need to try a food as many as seven times before they develop a taste for it.”
Persistence and adaptation are the keys to promoting healthy eating, Ms. Hammond agreed. Fortunately, children are clear about what they like and what they don’t like.
‘There’s not a lot of guesswork involved when it comes to kids,” Ms. Hammond said. “They let you know, good or bad, what they thought about something.”
Experimentation will be even more valuable as the stricter guidelines come into play in the fall. Taste tests and sample portions allow the hot lunch providers to see what will fly and what will fall.
“At that point you really need to count on the experience of your cook with the children in your school,” Ms. Lumbra said. “I’ve been doing this long enough to know what the kids want and what they’ll eat. Sometimes all you need to do is have a small tasting portion for them to try and see how it goes.”
Necessity is the mother of invention and the nutrition guidelines are forcing hot lunch providers to become increasingly inventive. Ms. Pallotta has begun experimenting with soy additives to brownies and even Ranch dressing.
“I get creative and give things names like double chocolate brownies to get them to try it.” she said.
“I think it really reflects on the community that the children here are so willing to try new things,” Ms. Hammond said. “There are foods that they like more than others, but I usually don’t have to try too hard to get them to sample something new. Of course, the last thing you want to do is force something onto their plate.”
Providing options for every meal has been an effective way to make sure that children meet the minimum requirements for a reimbursable school meal. In order to qualify for federal reimbursements, students must have at least three of five potential healthy options on their plate. For instance, they could have a vegetable, fruit, and milk, or simply three vegetables.
“Kids are just like anyone else,” Ms. Lumbra said. “They don’t want to eat the same thing every day. So I make sure I always have different meals and different fruits and vegetables available so that they can choose the ones they like best.”
Making sure that variety is available puts a strain on food budgets, but programs and partnerships exist to make it both theoretically and economically practical.
Green Mountain Farm to School
Green Mountain Farm to School has established a network of local farms willing to provide foods to area schools and institutions. This enhances both the food service programs and the viability of local producers.
“The program has evolved a lot since its inception,” Ms. Sims said. “We’ve grown to the point where schools can look at our weekly order sheet and choose the foods that meet their needs. Ordering through Farm to School is as easy as ordering through their regular food service company.”
In its infancy, Farm to School had a small list with only a handful of participating farms. It has since grown into a full service program involving dozens of farms and hundreds of products.
“When I first started cooking here four years ago, it was sometimes difficult to get the produce I wanted in the quantities I needed,” Ms. Hammond said. “Now I have so many choices and the delivery system is just fantastic.”
The last order form sent out by Farm to School had 22 pages worth of products, ranging from sour cream to organic beans, fresh whole turkey, to locally sourced bacon and beef. The abundance of offerings has been reflected in a nearly 200 percent growth in sales over the last year, Ms. Sims said.
“Last year we had about $36,000 in sales,” she said. “This year we are on target for more than $100,000 in sales. We’ve seen a phenomenal growth in the program with new farms and producers coming online all the time.”
Green Mountain Farm to School earned high praise for its technical assistance as well. Staffers have helped schools with gardens, provided food-themed educational programs for students and helped with funding through the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Grant program.
The program provides money to schools so they can make tasty snacks for children to sample. The grant funds cannot, however, be used to subsidize school meal programs.
“Because of the grant I’m able to prepare fruit and veggie platters for the kids to enjoy in the classroom,” Ms. Hammond said. “It’s a great way for me to be able to let them try foods that I might otherwise not be able to provide through the lunch program. I was also able to use the grant money to set up a salad bar for the kids to enjoy during lunch.”
The Green Mountain Farm to School staff have also provided assistance with recipe ideas and taste tests, Ms. Pallotta said. Their enthusiasm and creative efforts have helped introduce students to a much wider variety of foods than her budget alone could provide.
“They go above and beyond with everything they do,” she said. “I don’t regret becoming involved with them one bit.”
Within the last five or six years, school lunch programs have battled to contain costs. As in many industries, labor costs constitute a greater percentage of the food service program’s operational budget. Given that many of the lunch programs are staffed by a single person, saving money on labor becomes virtually impossible. As a result, schools have had to look elsewhere for cost savings.
One partnership that has paid dividends for both Orleans and Holland involves membership in a food buying co-op. The co-op is organized by Doug Davis of the Burlington school district. By combining the buying power of multiple schools from various districts, the co-op is able to secure lower rates on many food staples.
“A few years ago I tried to form a buying group with some of the local schools,” Ms. Lumbra recalls. “There wasn’t a lot of interest in it. They wanted to be able to buy from whatever companies they wanted to buy from with no strings attached.”
Ms. Pallotta likewise recalls when an effort was made to form a buying pool in the Orleans Central Supervisory Union (OCSU). As was Ms. Lumbra’s experience, interest was tepid and the plan faded away. When the opportunity arose to join the Burlington Food Co-op, she jumped at it.
“I think there will come a time when the districts will have to say schools must be part of a food co-op,” Ms. Pallotta said. “We can’t keep going the way we’ve been going.”
The Burlington buying group does require schools to adhere to minimum purchases with a contracted food service company — which at present is Reinhart Food Service. The buying group seeks bids, with the winning bidder providing 85 percent of the food.
In spite of the high level of contracted purchases, neither Ms. Lumbra nor Ms. Pallotta have found their programs unable to buy from Green Mountain Farm to School or any other provider as needed. What they have found are significant savings on their weekly food orders.
“I save anywhere from $2 to $8 a case on most of the food I buy,” Ms. Lumbra said. “Even though I have to deal with one company, I have found that they will carry the food I want when I ask for it. If I wasn’t part of the buying group, I don’t think this little school would have that kind of pull.”
Though not part of a food buying group, Ms. Hammond understands the value of such a relationship. Before working at Jay-Westfield, she spent many years as a cook involved with a commercial food service enterprise through the union high school and junior high school.
“When you are dealing with a company that operates not just locally, but regionally and nationally, you do have the power to leverage better prices,” she said. “I think it’s an idea that more schools are going to have to look into if they want to keep their costs down.”
contact Richard Creaser at [email protected]