Taking Back School Lunch
Operators meet the challenges of the increased costs of healthier foods with creative solutions and an outcry for federal funding.
After the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act in 2004, school districts with federally funded programs were required to meet a rigid set of nutrition standards by the start of the 2006 school year. In addition to being compliant with USDA dietary guidelines (no meal could contain trans fats or more than 30% fat or 10% saturated fat), schools began to establish their own wellness policies to emphasize proper nutrition. Next year, limits and restrictions are expected to be imposed in at least 18 states.
In an industry in which high-caloric, fast food-style menu items were once the standard, these acts represent a leap forward for child nutrition. While most foodservice directors support the movement, the increased costs of adding fresh produce and eliminating fats have presented a challenge to many operators. Criss Atwell, director of nutrition services for Modesto County, CA, Schools in California (where all schools were required to ban fatty and sugary foods from a la carte menus and vending machines in June), says succinctly: “Healthier food costs more money. If you take two frozen meals from your grocery store—a Swanson’s and a Healthy Choice—the Healthy Choice is going to cost at least twice as much as the Swanson’s.”
Atwell expects to spend $3.7 million on food next year, which will represent a 10% increase in costs due to the healthier ingredients. “The real issue here isn’t making the transition to the healthier items. We support that and think it’s a good idea,” he says. “We believe the main issue is the state (mandating) changes without any funding. Food costs have risen 25% over the last four years, while (funding) increases from the state and federal government came to about 13%. The difference seems to grow wider year after year.”
With funding resolutions and reimbursable rate increases being considered in most states, many operators are optimistic about the possibility of receiving increased funding as early as the fall of 2007. “It’s unfortunate that (Congress) vetoed funding after they made the law (to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act),” says Maryah Stoots, student nutrition supervisor at the Morgan Hill, CA, Unified School District. “We felt like they shorted us. But from what I’ve read about the legislation, it seems pretty hopeful that we’ll receive it this year.”
In the meantime, foodservice directors have had to take a hard look at their operations to cut costs and increase revenue. Adding to the challenge of absorbing additional costs, operators have struggled to keep participation levels constant. When fat-laden favorites like french fries and doughnuts are replaced by baked potatoes and fresh fruits, some students turn to brown bag lunches.
Atwell says that he feels lucky that his participation rates have remained stable, and he attributes this to a gradual introduction of the new foods. “We started making these changes two years ago, and final implementation took effect at the end of the school year,” he explains. “Luckily for us, the transition has been very smooth, and that’s because it wasn’t done all at once. If we made abrupt changes instead of phasing them in, students might not have been so accepting.”
Atwell admits that he worried about eliminating some big-ticket items, such as “El Jefe,” or “The Boss”—a burrito that weighed in at 600 calories. “That item was very popular, and yes it will be missed,” he says. “But students are realizing that there are other items on the menu that are of good quality and have good taste.”
At the Springfield, OH, School District, foodservice director David Zambo says that he saw some push-back when menu items changed. “Our sales did go down, especially initially,” he admits. “Kids noticed the difference on certain items. We went with a low-fat nacho cheese, and they didn’t like that. Another area that we saw a change in was our soups. At the high schools, a lot of the kids really liked the chicken and dumpling soup, but it had over 50% fat content. We went with some healthier alternatives, but kids miss it.”
Like Atwell, Zambo says that students tend to become more accepting of healthier menu items with time, and after an initial dip, sales have started to go up again. He also has been successful in replacing all white flour products with whole wheat flour. “Next year we’re looking at bringing in soup vendors for taste testing panels in the high school,” he adds.
While students in Springfield rejected the low-fat nacho cheese, other operators have had more success is “sneaking” healthier ingredients (and cooking processes) into popular foods. According to a recent report by ABC News, protein-rich doughnuts, low-sodium hot dogs and baked pancakes were successful new additions last year at Kennan Elementary School in West Virginia. In the Waterford, MI, School district, Robert Brady, associate director of purchasing, food and auxiliary services, says that students have accepted reduced-fat mozzarella cheese (used on whole-grain pizzas), low-fat ranch dressing, oven-cooked french fries, and turkey in cold cuts and pasta sauce. “We still give kids what they want, but in a more healthy manner,” he asserts.
The Missing Piece: Despite these successes, there has been resistance to the concept of “faux fast food.” Kids may be more willing to eat whole-wheat flour when it is bleached, but that does not teach healthy eating habits.
“Nobody has noticed that the missing piece here is nutrition education,” says Cindy Marion, nutrition director for Stokes County, NC, Schools. “There hasn’t been a dime invested in that (from the government). And I don’t care how much we spend modifying meal patterns, if we don’t educate children to make better choices, those things won’t happen.”
At the Omaha, NE, Public School District, director of nutrition services Tammy Yarmon puts education at the forefront of her wellness plan. Like other operators, she has seen her food costs rise dramatically, but she believes that “the key to success is to (introduce new foods) in such a way that it doesn’t impact your participation,” and she has succeeded in this through educational and promotional programs.
“Every year we have a theme, and we tailor all of our menus, posters and nutrition education programs around it,” she explains. “For the past six years we have focused on fruits and vegetables, and we feature a vegetable of the month. We put it on our menu, create posters, and send home information sheets for the parents with recipes and storage information. We also offer the students samples. If this goes well, we introduce (the fruit or vegetable) to our regular menu after the month is up.”
Favorites have included baby bananas and blood oranges. In September, Yarmon plans to feature Pink Lady apples. “This program has helped us considerably in instituting the new policies, because when it comes to food, kids are not flexible. They don’t like surprises, and they do what their peers do. A child will go through the line and take chocolate skim milk, and then the next six children will take chocolate skim milk.”
This year, Yarmon’s goal is to teach elementary school students that “brown bread is okay.” “It’s best to impact students in K-5 in order to make an (eventual) change in the junior and senior highs,” she suggests.
“We’ve been putting whole grain products out for the past couple of years, but it hasn’t been too accepted,” adds Yarmon. “We don’t want to use the new whole white or wheat white flours—that’s like taking fiber and hiding it. We want students to accept whole grains. We’ve been in touch with a lot of the ‘green’ boards to see if we could get shucks of wheat and oats brought in. We’re also creating different characters—ones for wheat, corn and oats. That way the students can start relating to them. We probably won’t see results for three to four years, but we’ll keep putting it out there and hope it gradually catches on.”
Because kids tend to act reticently when presented with new foods, Brady at the Waterford School District has made a point of offering healthy meals that mirror ones sold at popular fast-casual restaurants.
“When we put a surprise on the line, kids won’t eat it; it has to be something they recognize from a previous experience,” he says. “Whole wheat wraps with vegetables inside have done well because the kids recognize them from going to Subway.”
The prevalence of healthier foods in popular chains makes Brady optimistic about the long-term success of his new menu items.
“Kids want to eat in school what they eat away from school,” he says. “It used to be a long time ago that Mom was serving meatloaf or macaroni and cheese, and that’s what kids wanted to see at school. Then we transitioned to more of a fast food type of thing, and it was more like chicken nuggets and fries. Today when (students) go to a quick serve restaurant, predominantly they’re going to see salads and fresh sandwiches and leaner entrees. Then they’re more inclined to try them when we offer them at school.”
Creative Solutions: Sometimes, boosting foodservice budgets requires ingenuity. At School District 55 in Sweet Home, OR, Foodservice Director Milli Horton says that the district’s new catering business, which uses school kitchens and staff, has helped recoup cafeteria losses, allowing meal costs not only to remain constant, but to be lower than those in nearby districts.
“The catering business has been a big thing,” she says. “We started that last year when we realized there was a need for a good catering company in the community. All the profits go back to the foodservice budget.” In recent months, the new business has catered weddings, sporting events, awards banquets and auctions. “More and more, schools are going to have to find new ways to make some profit to put back into their budgets,” she adds.
David Zambo of Spingfield, Ohio, is optimistic about new equipment that he believes will save the district money while providing students with a healthier product. “For the next school year, we’re looking at a combi-oven for our french fries that cooks with steam and then, in the convection component, adds that crispness without adding fat,” he says. “Without all the cleaning of the deep fryers and the oil we purchase and the food waste we have, we’re looking at a savings of $3,000 a year just by going with this healthier way of cooking. It will be a major purchase, but in the long run it will pay for itself.”
Raising Prices: Despite their best efforts, many foodservice directors discover that healthier foods will cost more. Atwell, Brady, Stoots and Zambo all say that have had to increase their prices slightly.
“For the last school year when the changes took effect, I wasn’t paying that much attention to the increased costs,” admits Stoots, who has been with the Morgan Hill Unified School District for a year. “This month, we are raising meal prices by 25 cents to compensate for our costs. We hadn’t raised prices in four years, and food costs have increased because of gas prices and things like that anyway. The school board was supportive, and hopefully the students will accept it too.”
“Students understand to a certain extent that costs have increased everywhere,” notes Criss Atwell. “However, in school districts there is a different mentality. People don’t accept price increases like they do in the private industry. They may understand it, but they like to voice their concerns more than if they walked into Quiznos, where their options would be to pay for it or just decide to eat somewhere else.”
For Atwell, the possibility of receiving funding is forefront in his mind as he struggles to maintain profit margins. “There needs to be more funding,” he states. “You cannot continue to demand that foodservice programs implement healthier food choices and at the same time not stand behind them financially. I hear this from directors all over the state.”
Stoots concurs, although she has had more success in boosting funding levels by applying for the California Fresh Fruits pilot program, which gives districts 10 cents per student meal if they offer two fruit and vegetable choices.
“We are hoping that next year they increase our reimbursement rate, and that the extra 25 cents a meal will offset our costs a little,” she says. “In the mean time we will keep improving our menu and trying to provide better nutrition for students. There’s no way to ensure that we will ever be totally self sustainable, but it’s a goal.”