School cafeterias keep rolling with the changes

By Shelby Harrell Staff Writer and Anne Baker Lifestyles Editor | Nov 01, 2013
Photo by: Shelby Harrell Sara Smith, left, and Alma Grasty dump their school lunch trays into the trashcan after their lunch period at Waynesville Middle School.

New federal policies addressing childhood obesity are forcing school cafeterias to change to menus offering healthier options.

Standards that incorporate more fruits, vegetables and whole grains haven't been a popular change with students, school leaders say, and is resulting in some foods being thrown away rather eaten.

Each year, Allison Francis, director of school food services, submits a menu to the USDA to be certified, which shows the government that Haywood County schools are meeting all the federal nutrition requirements.

Francis said new rules require students to take one serving of fruit or vegetables at lunch — even if the students have no intention of eating it.

“For a lunch to be reimbursable, students have to select a fruit or vegetable,” Francis said. “Even though they have to pick it, they don’t necessarily eat it so we have heavier trash cans.”

Students who choose not to get a full meal can pay for items out-of-pocket on an a la carte basis.

“We try to encourage them to take a meal. If the kids don’t take it, then we’re spending more money on making something that they’re not eating. It’s kind of disappointing,” Francis said.

Cafeteria cuisine

One major change in the menu that has been causing a fuss has been using only whole-grain breads and pastas.

"The hard part is getting them to accept it," Francis said. "There’s something’s that shouldn’t be whole grain — like biscuits. Our biggest concern is finding an acceptable pasta the kids will eat. One of their favorites is macaroni and cheese, but with the whole grain noodles, they’re throwing it away.”

However some healthier food items are hardly noticed by the students.

Waynesville Middle School sixth-grader Serenity McClure eats pizza just about every day and says it’s her favorite. What she probably doesn’t realize is it’s a healthy pizza.

"A lot of the kids don't realize they are eating healthy," said Vickie Messer, Waynesville Middle School’s cafeteria manager. “The pizza, for example, is made from a whole-grain crust and low-fat cheese. And the chicken rings contain whole grains. It tastes just as good."

Each afternoon at Waynesville Middle School, students have the option to select their lunch from five different lunch lines.

A pizza line is available every day accompanied by a salad bar. In addition, there is always a menu line, which changes its menu items daily. Some students choose to enjoy the sandwich and soup line and many students who are not on free or reduced lunch might spend their money on a la carte items such as chips and snack cakes.

Monday’s featured menu lunch was “Breakfast for Lunch,” which included a whole-grain biscuit with gravy, french fries, scrambled eggs, applesauce and a choice of low-fat or chocolate milk.

Sixth-grader Priscilla Royster said she was usually a fan of Waynesville Middle’s lunch options.

“I love their spaghetti — spaghetti is my favorite,” Royster said while enjoying her whole-grain biscuit. However, Royster admitted that she didn’t like some foods the school served.

“One thing is their Asian chicken — I kind of like it, but I kind of don’t,” Royster said, adding that she always ate the school lunch no matter what was served. “I don’t ever get snacks unless I have money, and I don’t ever have money.”

However, Waynesville Middle School sixth-grader Casey Owen said she almost always opted for a snack instead of cafeteria food.

“I don’t like the school’s food. It’s yucky,” Owen said while staring at her untouched pizza that she later threw away.

To ensure that middle schoolers are recycling their cans and plastic, cafeteria workers at Waynesville Middle School stand by the trashcans and watch students dump their lunch trays and dispose of their trash.

Many students carried empty trays to dump into the trash, but a number of students also disposed of food items such as sandwiches and apples that they didn't eat.

Losing money

Last year, Haywood County Schools lost $492,654.25 countywide on food expenses, Francis said.

A school lunch costs about $3.30 to produce a single school lunch, which means the school system loses anywhere from 29 cents to 74 cents on each meal once the school is reimbursed by the USDA.

A full-priced meal for students costs $2.20 for pre-k through fifth-graders and $2.45 for students in grades 6-12. Adults are charged $3.50.

All students who are eligible for reduced lunch are charged 40 cents per meal. Currently 6.5 percent of Haywood County students qualify for a reduced lunch rate and 48.5 percent of students receive free lunch.

The USDA reimburses the school system 36 cents for each regular paid lunch, $2.61 for every reduced lunch and $3.01 for every free lunch. All prices and reimbursements are below the actual cost of providing the school lunches.

“Unfortunately every time we increase it, we lose more paid kids participating,” Francis said. “We see a decline in the amount of kids eating every time. But the USDA usually requires us to raise the cost every year.”

Though some students are receiving a free or reduced lunch, they are still expected to choose a full meal with a fruit or vegetable in order not to be charged.

Even though providing healthier lunches is stretching the cafeteria budgets pretty thin, it’s not in the best interest to raise the prices of student lunch, Francis said. The cost for lunch was not raised this past year.

Francis said the state contributed about $12,000 each year to help cover the cost of school breakfast, which only makes up about 24 percent of $5 million spent on food each year.

Anne Garrett, superintendent of Haywood County Schools, said her goal was to try not to lose money on school lunches.

“We just want to break even,” Garrett said.

However, breaking even is becoming less and less likely since more requirements will be implemented in the next year.

New sodium requirements will be enforced next year, which will limit the amount of salt cafeteria foods can be prepared with.

In addition, new regulations will be imposed on a la carte items and vending machine foods next year, restricting the snacks that many students purchase regularly. Francis said the vending costs helped subsidize the money lost on school lunches throughout the year.

“We’re going to have to limit vending items up until 3:30 (p.m.), and that’s going to hurt us financially,” Francis said. “It takes those a la carte sales to make up the difference for losing money.”

For now, Francis said all she and the cafeteria staff members can do is to continue to meet regulations and feed the students.

“We’ve just got to roll with the changes and keep going," Francis said. "We're just going to do the best we can and hopefully we’ll be able to hold our head above water.”

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