Menu Makeover

Partnership helps Peninsula School District make meals healthier.

Students at the Peninsula School District are being exposed to new items such as chicken curry.

GIG HARBOR, Wash.—A community partnership has helped 8,500-student Peninsula School District redevelop menus to be healthier.

In 2009, the ACHIEVE (action communities for health, innovation and environmental change) committee was formed in the counties surrounding Gig Harbor. ACHIEVE is an initiative funded through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aimed at empowering communities to implement strategies that can help prevent or manage health risk factors for conditions such as stroke, diabetes and obesity.

One component of ACHIEVE focused on school nutrition. For three weeks in May and June, two elementary schools in the Peninsula School District had a menu makeover to comply with ACHIEVE goals. For the pilot, menu items had to fit the following standards: less than 30% total calories from fat, a minimum of 10 grams of fiber, less than 1,150 milligrams of sodium and less than 15 grams of added sugar.

Sid Taylor, child nutrition director for Sodexo at Peninsula, was in charge of implementing the pilot program, which was named the Real Healthy Choices Menu. “These requirements created a lot of challenges for us with commodity products because a lot of them are really packed with sodium,” Taylor said. “We took away a lot of the standard stuff that the kids were used to getting like chicken nuggets and hot dogs. We replaced those with things like a teriyaki chicken rice bowl with edamame or scratch-made enchiladas. We did a toasted turkey and cheese sandwich with housemade minestrone soup.”

Taylor said students responded favorably to the pilot, and data showed that although food and labor costs had increased, participation had as well so the department was able to breakeven. This fall, the program was expanded to run full time in all of the district’s eight elementary schools.

Marketing: Participation declined the first month of the rollout. “When we wrote our menus, we were writing them in terms of marketing and focusing on parents,” Taylor said. “We [thought we needed] to promote the new menu to parents so they would encourage their kids to buy lunch. What we found was that if we market it toward parents, the kids didn’t accept it.”

To rectify the problem, future menus have been marketed to students. For example, a teriyaki chicken rice bowl with edamame was renamed a teriyaki rice bowl.  Since the marketing changes, participation has increased.

Taylor said the students are willing to try new food items, but he has received requests for traditional favorites like corn dogs and chicken nuggets, which have been removed.

One new item the students liked was chicken curry. “We put it on the menu just to see what would happen,” Taylor said. “Half our district is really high free and reduced and the other half is really affluent. We run the same menu throughout the district. The students at the affluent schools might have already come into contact with curry, whereas the students at the higher free and reduced percentage probably hadn’t. But they all tried it and a lot of them liked it.”

Minor tweaks: Some changes, however, have not gone over as well. A teriyaki chicken bowl, for example, was not a hit at first. “The recipe called for everything to be mixed together,” Taylor said. “When it came out, the quality of it and the look of it, the kids didn’t like. So we modified the recipe and did it much like you would see in an Asian recipe where you put the rice down first and then the chicken and sprinkle the edamame on top. Then the kids liked it.”

Another tweak came with a meat and bean burrito. In the beginning, everything was served separately. Taylor noticed, however, that the students would take the taco meat but not the beans, which were a key component to meet that day’s fiber requirement. “We mixed the beans and meat, so the kids didn’t even know they were getting it,” Taylor said.

Many of the new items are made in the central kitchen and finished on site.

“The school foodservice business used to be scratch cooking,” Taylor said. “Then we got into the processed fast-food model. Now the kids are starting to crave and request scratch-cooked items because they get so many fast-food items at home. When we serve things like a spaghetti and meat sauce or roasted turkey, we see the kids really want it. Our participation climbs.”

Taylor hopes to expand the Real Healthy Choices Menu to the middle and high schools. “Our goal is to change the tastes of kids, and our focus is on the elementary schools so we can teach them and have them exposed to foods that they normally wouldn’t be,” he added. “Then, as they get to middle school and high school, they are going to recognize these new flavors and will actually crave them.”