Several changes have been implemented in the St. Marys Area School District lunch program
following responses submitted as part of a survey. On a daily basis up to 1,900 students utilize the school meal program in five separate buildings.
"The comments, concerns, and suggestions are not only appreciated, but will also be used to improve our quality, service, and commitment to our students in providing them with a healthy, well-balanced breakfast and lunch," said Jennifer Asti, director of food services.
Current meals prices throughout the district are 80 cents for breakfast and $1.70 for lunch at the elementary schools and $1 for breakfast and $1.95 for lunch at the secondary schools.
"In comparing our menu prices with the other schools across the state, even in our area and surrounding area, our menu prices are usually at least the same price, if not lower in most instances," Asti said.
She noted that two years ago a requirement was set for all schools to evaluate their school meal pricing which resulted in the district raising the cost by no more than 10 cents a year until the district meets the federal reimbursement rate.
On Jan. 6 the high school added new menu offerings consisting of a salad bar with assorted fresh vegetables, deli meats and toppings; a once-a-month fresh fruit bar, with its next availability on Jan. 22; and a once-a-month hot soup and potato bar, being offered next on Jan. 29. Individually prepared chef salads as previously offered will be available in conjunction with the fruit and soup bars.
These new salad bars were made possible through a ‘Let’s Move Salad Bars to School’ grant Asti applied for last school year. She thinks they will be a great addition for students.
Also in November a chef salad meal became a new option at the elementary school.
"I am happy to report this has been a big hit with our elementary students," Asti said. "This idea actually came from a parent suggestion to me in one of our surveys. What a great idea."
In December the high school began selling Domino's Pizza, which has a school-line pizza which utilizes whole grain crust, reduced fat cheese, and a turkey pepperoni that has less fat and less grease. The pizza meets the current requirements for the National School Lunch Program, is made fresh daily and delivered to the high school at 10:45 a.m. for first and second lunches. A cafeteria driver picks up the next delivery at noon for students in the third lunch period.
Last year middle and high school student government bodies met with SMASD Superintendent Ann Kearney on several occasions to discuss concerns, menu requests and suggestions. These students were also invited to attend the district’s wellness committee.
"We take our student concerns and suggestions very seriously, as we want to be able to provide our students with the foods that meet our requirements, but also are well-received by our students. We encourage student and parent feedback," Asti said.
Popular meals are consistently pizza, chicken, and walking tacos. According to Asti the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Act passed by the federal government created an overwhelming amount of changes for school food service. These changes and requirements were highlighted on December’s menus.
"I often hear that we are not serving enough food and portion sizes are smaller. I want to assure students and parents that our portion sizes have not changed at all-- if anything, they are larger," she said.
An example of this is the increased serving size of fruits and vegetables. Two years ago students received a 1/2 cup of fruits and vegetables at all grade levels. However with the new regulations they are now offered 3/4 cup of vegetables for kindergarten through eighth grades and one cup each of fruit and vegetables at the high school level.
"The way the food is made with all of the changes that are required has created a healthier product by utilizing whole grains, and lowered sodium and saturated fats, has resulted in these items containing fewer calories per portion," Asti noted.
Serving sizes of some foods remain the same such as with chicken nuggets, a two hot dog and two biscuit limit at the high school.
"The biggest change that impacts us is that any breads or breading must be whole grains or whole wheat. We often use the whole grain products as this is received better by our students than the whole wheat," Asti said. "Also, when we need to add a bread exchange to our menu we often will use the goldfish crackers, vanilla dots, or Scooby sticks as our bread exchange versus whole grain or wheat breads or rolls due to student preference."
New guidelines require schools to meet five vegetable subgroups every week. These subgroups are: dark green, legumes, starchy, red/orange, and ‘other’ such as cucumbers, green beans and iceberg lettuce. The district's vegetable choices include things that are in all of those categories, both fresh and frozen.
"Very rarely are canned vegetables used," Asti said. "The only instance where we would have a canned vegetable are the baked beans or kidney or black beans."
A low estimate of approximately $10,400 per week is the average bill for vendors to supply the district with food and beverages.
Asti said she works very closely with school nurses, parents and students in creating and providing them with menu choices which allows the student to participate in the meal program.
"We attempt to meet the needs and requests of all students. We have a handful of students who require a gluten-free menu and also a handful of students in all buildings that have medical concerns and need to know the carbohydrates in our menu or who have allergies that would restrict their choices."
Numerous concerns were in regard to foods being served in plastic bags.
In reviewing lunch menus for the school year, through Dec. 20, there were 81 days. Out of these 81 main lunch menus, there have only been four "food in a bag"’ main items (this does not include the "uncrustable" peanut butter and jelly sandwich). These four items were: a toasted cheese sandwich- served once on Aug. 30; a brand new item never used at the school- a pretzel dog- in October; and two flavored waffles (chocolate chip and blueberry) served once each in September and October.
Asti clarified those foods are not microwaved but are made to be cooked within their packaging in the oven accordingly.
The food service department is also independently operated.
"We are responsible for all of our expenses, including the payroll for our department. We depend on our school breakfast and lunch payment and sales, as well as our federal and state reimbursements for the sales of these meals, to allow our department to function," Asti explained.
For various meals cafeteria staff prepare between 200 to 300 pounds of meat for use in tacos, meatloaf or meat sauce for spaghetti and between 120 to 150 pounds for pasta dishes.
Numerous alternatives to the main menu are available for all grade levels. At the elementary and middle school, students may choose the main meal, the peanut butter and jelly meal or the "alternate of the month meal."
Middle and high school students have six menu choices or can select pizza every day as well as chef salads, hoagies, fruit and veggie bowls, and fruit-yogurt parfaits, all of which are made daily by cafeteria staff at 7 a.m., except the hoagies.
Complete results of the survey are available on the school district's website, www.smasd.org, under the superintendent's blog.
The survey was suggested by Matt Quesenberry, SMASD school board member.