School district's meal cart puts student choice back into school meals

Hacienda La Puente Unified School District has piloted a customizable meal cart to give students more control over what goes into their meal.
Meal cart
Students are able to customize their own meals via the district's meal cart. | Photos courtesy of Brittany Rodriguez

Brittney Rodriguez, school nutrition supervisor at Hacienda La Puente Unified School District (HLPUSD) in City of Industry, Calif. was looking for a way to offer students more control over their meals at school.

“We’re trying to get the students really engaged with what they’re eating,” she says.

Her search resulted in her coming up with the idea of a meal cart that could be used during breakfast and lunch to offer students a rotating menu of customizable options.

Rodriguez was able to turn her idea into a reality thanks to her participation in the Chef Ann Foundation’s Healthy School Food Pathway Fellowship program, which teaches fellows how to manage a school nutrition program built around scratch-made meals over the course of 12 months.

Rodriguez decided to create and pilot the initiative as part of her capstone project for the program.

The team recently piloted the new offering at two high schools and is working to expand it to additional schools in the district.

Students line up for the meal cart
Students line up for the meal cart. 

Starting with pho

When planning out the pilot, the team chose pho as the first menu item to serve at the cart since it was something that would be familiar at one of the pilot schools due to students’ background but would not be as recognizable to students at the other pilot school.

Students had the option of choosing chicken, pork or vegetarian pho and could top their selection with a variety of ingredients including jalapeno, cilantro, bean sprouts, green onions, basil and lime to further customize their meal.

Response to the new menu item was overwhelmingly positive, Rodriguezsays, adding that students appreciated the ability to have complete control over what ingredients they wanted to add to their meal.

“The kids really loved the idea,” she says. “There was so much variation with the bowls that they built.”

toppings at cart
Students had a variety of toppings to choose from for their pho. 

Expanding the offerings

Now that the cart has made a test-run, the team plans to expand it to additional schools in the district. The rollout will be very gradual, Rodriguez says, so they can make sure that the launch goes as smooth as possible.

“It’s definitely steppingstones,” says Rodriguez. “It’s definitely good to pilot things first.”

Alongside pho, the team hopes to expand the offerings at the cart to include things like oatmeal and smoothies. In addition, they would love to incorporate local ingredients into the meals served at the cart as well.

Seeing the older students branch out and get comfortable trying new menu items via the cart has Rodriguez excited to see how the middle and elementary students will decide to build their own meals when the cart comes to their school.

While there’s still a long way to go before the cart is part of the permanent offerings at the district, launching the pilot and participating in the fellowship has gotten Rodriguez excited for what’s to come.

“It allowed me to see the potential in what we can do,” she says.