On Starting a School Meal Program, for Tazeen Chowdhury

Tazeen Chowdhury speaks about creating an entirely new school lunch program at Mt. Lebanon School District.

The 5,300-student Mt. Lebanon School District, located just outside Pittsburgh, is a walking school district with no school busses and, until two years ago, no school lunch program for the elementary students. Tazeen Chowdhury, foodservice director, talks to FSD about setting up the program and getting buy in from the community.

Q. What were the hindrances behind starting an elementary school meal program?

We’re a district of 10 schools: one high school, two middle schools and seven elementary schools. It’s a walking community. In the past all the kids would go home for lunch. As the community grew there was more traffic so they had to hire traffic guards. Instead of going home some of the kids would go up the street to the ice cream store or would run up and down the streets, so it was posing some safety issues. A lot of our school buildings didn’t have the facility for a kitchen or cafeteria. We were using multipurpose rooms [for students who brought lunch to eat in], so it was quite a challenge figuring out how we could meet health department codes to be able to provide some sort of school lunch option. At the high school we had a cafeteria, but we weren’t on the National School Lunch Program until two years ago.

Q. Was starting an elementary meal program something parents were asking for?

It’s something we’ve been lobbying for. With a new school board and all the new regulations coming down with school lunches and our wellness policy, it’s something I’ve been pushing for. So we got approval to do a pilot program in two schools to see how it would do.

Q. What did you learn from the pilot?

What we found out from the pilot is that the kids really wanted a hot lunch, especially during the cold winter months. In the past they were bringing their bag lunches and cold sandwiches. We started satelliting food from the senior high school where we had a production kitchen. Everything is prewrapped. It is very much a limited menu because there is only so much we can produce and transport out. A child has a choice of a hot entrée, a cold sandwich or wrap and a garden salad every day. They have three choices with unlimited fruits and vegetables and milk. It’s a self-service line. We have hot holding units, which we provide all of the hot foods out of. It’s still kind of makeshift, but now that we have it up and running and it’s become so popular we’re hoping that we’ll be able to put in more permanent counters and things like that. The elementary program is also on the National School Lunch Program, so we are able to accommodate the growing number of free and reduced lunches. With the economy being in a slump there was no way for low-income families to take advantage of the government subsidy. Since the pilot was such a success we got the go-ahead to put it into all the buildings.

Q. Was it hard to get buy in from parents and students?

It was difficult to get parent and student buy into the program. It had never been done before and the kids were used to going home or bringing a lunch from home. We really promoted the program and the healthy lunches that meet the USDA nutritional guidelines. We also promoted the fresh and locally grown fruits and vegetables. All of that contributed to having them try it at first and liking it. It is still an option for the kids to go home, but what we are seeing is that more and more kids are staying at school.

I think the success of our program has been to really promote the health and wellness. The main thing that parents especially liked was that we provided unlimited fruits and vegetables. That was the selling point. We thought there might be a lot of abuse and waste, but the kids were really excited. We portion out the fruits and vegetables. We have a farm of the month so we have locally grown produce. This month it’s heirloom tomatoes and next month it’s zucchini. With childhood obesity at the rates that it is, here we are providing a well-balanced, healthy meal for a cost of $1.75. It’s a great value and we expose kids to a large variety of healthy choices.

Q. How have you promoted the elementary meal program?

One of the things that we’ve done to promote our program at the elementaries is going in and doing some great classroom education where we introduce different things the kids aren’t used to seeing like avocados and asparagus. It’s been fun to get into those classrooms and talk about the different fruits and vegetables and promote our program.