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Order up! Hip & healthier school meals

New cafeteria design, gardens and sustainability can entice more students to choose better food
  • The cafeteria at Buckingham County Middle School in Dillwyn, Virginia, was redesigned to CDC healthy-eating guidelines with brighter, student-friendly spaces.
  • Buckingham County Middle School’s cafeteria also has an open kitchen lab.
  • Based on a collegiate dining model, the new Bloomfield Hills High School in Michigan has five cafeterias.
  • Bloomfield Hills High School also has five satellite locations throughout the building that feature grab-and-go items.

Students will likely choose healthier meals if provided with more comfortable places to eat. Modern lighting and food-court style designs can draw students to dining areas while school gardens can provide learning experiences and also supply cafeterias with fresh, less expensive produce.

Also on the cost-saving side of healthier meals, large districts have built central kitchens to concentrate all the resources and work to prepare meals. Meanwhile, other school systems have returned to preparing meals from scratch.

Friendlier places to eat

In 2013, Buckingham County Middle School in Virginia redesigned its cafeteria based on The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s report, “Healthy Eating Design Guidelines for School Architecture,” which features strategies for changing dining models to encourage healthy eating.

The school built an open teaching kitchen and bakery where students can watch staff prepare the meals for the day. It also incorporated more natural lighting, removed vending machines, placed salad bars and other healthy options at eye level, and added numerous water fountains.

In a similar effort that received national attention, San Francisco USD in 2013 launched its “Future Dining Experience” plan to transform the district’s cafeterias. The initiative, in place at five of the district’s 100-plus schools, features “grab-and-go” stations where students can quickly pick up sandwiches and pre-made salads. More modern furniture and lighting has been added to create friendlier spaces in which students can socialize.

UC Berkeley is studying the San Francisco program, although the district reports school lunch numbers have not changed substantially in three years. The results of a two-year study in Virginia have not been released yet. But feedback from parents and teachers in both districts is positive.

Cost-effective tactics and simple design measures are also being employed. Some schools have installed sound-deadening material to reduce noise in dining spaces. Others have added and staggered lunch periods to shorten lines. When the new Bloomfield Hills High School in Michigan opened last September, it included five cafeterias—one main dining area and four smaller satellite stations that serve grab-and-go meals.

“With the weather here in Michigan, kids can be running late in the morning and maybe miss breakfast, so now they have a chance to get something quick like a yogurt smoothie or a bagel, and get back to class,” says Mandy Sosnowski, front line manager for Aramark, Bloomfield Hills’ food service provider.

Operating multiple serving locations encourages students to choose more hot and cold vegetables, and reduces fresh fruit waste, according to a 2012 study from Chartwells School Dining Services and the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs.

Some schools now mimic college-style food courts with multiple serving stations because the model is popular with students. “We’re finding the sophistication level of high school students is beginning to match what we’re seeing at the colleges, so you’re seeing that transformation,” says Roxanne Moore, national wellness director for schools at food services company Sodexo.

Make cafeteria cool

Some students struggle with the stigma of qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, so they skip meals and go hungry.

Since passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and its Community Eligibility Provision, breakfasts and lunches are subsidized for schools where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced meals. Baltimore, Chicago and Boston are among cities already participating.

Kansas City Public Schools began a free-meals-for-all program last September, providing free meals to 38 schools and 15,000 students. In 2014, Kansas City had a 52 percent participation rate for breakfast and 73 percent for lunch. But now in the first year of the program, breakfast participation has risen to 63 percent and lunch has gone up to 89 percent.

“The program has been huge, especially when it comes to the middle and high school students,” says Ellen Cram, district director of child nutrition. “Going to the cafeteria wasn’t necessarily the cool thing to do. And they wouldn’t take the application home to even get it filled out. Now there’s no stigma. Everybody eats for free.”

It has also eliminated paperwork and associated costs. Cram had hired as many as eight people for up to a three-month period just to process free and reduced-price lunch applications. And often, teachers and administrators were drawn into the paperwork collection effort.

However, the district now has to grapple with a different set of costs. “With more students eating, we do order more food and we need to have more labor as well,” Cram says. “But we plan our menus to meet the guidelines and to operate within the reimbursement amount, so we’ve been alright financially in that overall; we’re in the black.”

Cost savings have been reinvested in upgrading kitchen equipment.

Farm-fresh engagement

Although a mostly urban district, Detroit Public Schools has embraced the farm-to-school movement. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act gives schools funds to serve fresh produce from local sources, including school and community gardens.

With an abundance of land available from depopulation, an urban agriculture movement has sprouted in Detroit. A program that started with one school garden has grown to 80 gardens, a three-acre farm and six plastic-covered hoop houses that generate thousands of pounds of greens and root vegetables that end up on lunch trays across the city.

“When you’re in Detroit, you have to be resourceful,” says Betti Wiggins, executive director of the school nutrition office at Detroit schools. “We teamed with our science department and developed our school garden program to focus around STEM education as well as nutrition education. We moved it from the classroom to the garden to the cafeteria.”

The program—which helps serve local food to 55,000 kids in 141 schools—also includes teacher education and staff development. “Everyone talks about what kids won’t do, but when you get them engaged, they will participate,” says Wiggins, who adds that students like to show off to friends what they’ve grown, such as tomatoes, on the school menu.

More than 42,000 schools nationwide participate in farm-to-school activities, according to a 2015 census by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. In 2013, 31 percent of those schools were operating nearly 2,400 school gardens.

But districts that can’t have gardens have other farm-to-school options. FarmLogix, which connects schools to local farms, has partnered with Aramark to become the largest single farm-to-school purchasing entity in the nation, operating in 15 states. The result is that schools served by Aramark can get fresher fruits and vegetables on lunch trays.

Central savings

In the spirit of streamlining resources to increase efficiency and meal consistency, many districts have established central kitchens. Meals are created en masse in these often large, commercial-like facilities, and then are shipped to individual schools to be reheated and served.

“We can purchase in bulk, we can prepare in bulk,” says Jody Houston, director of food services for Corpus Christi ISD, which includes nearly 60 schools and 39,000 students. District food service revolves around an 81,000-square-foot central kitchen.

In school kitchens, setup takes time, including gathering the ingredients to cook and cleaning up. “When you can do that with very few people and do each task once instead of 40 times, that saves a lot of time and money,” Houston says.

In the central kitchen, Houston employs eight workers who prepare meals overnight and ship them out to the elementary schools early in the morning. School staff members reheat and serve the meals. Corpus Christi bought and maintains its own trucks to deliver meals each morning and to transport meat, frozen food and dry goods throughout the day.

Schools without kitchens can also take advantage of a prepackaged system of hot and cold meals that are delivered. Salads, sandwiches and wraps are prepared at the central kitchen as well.

The facility allows the district to save money by buying raw foods, Houston says. “For instance, if we get raw ground beef and use it in spaghetti sauces, it’s much cheaper than if we have to send the beef to be pattied,” she says.

Wisdom in tradition

To keep cafeteria-related expenses in check and allow for quicker prep time, schools have long relied on frozen meals and assembly-line techniques. But those approaches don’t always result in the most appealing menus.

Consequently, what was old is new again: making meals from scratch, on-site. Although seemingly more expensive and labor-intensive, this counterintuitive method is winning converts as it results in better food and less waste—potentially saving money in the long run.

The organization Cook for America works with school districts in New York City, Los Angeles, Denver and across the country to incorporate healthier, cooking-from-scratch techniques.

It operates “culinary boot camps,” intense five-day training seminars that teach school kitchen staff basic cooking methods, culinary math, menu planning and the physiology of taste. With the new skills, cafeteria employees can follow new recipes to create healthier and tastier dishes for students, rather than relying on bland, pre-packaged meals.

Cook for America worked with Dayton Independent Schools in Kentucky last year, training staff and assessing the overall food service, which employed a heat-and-serve model. Recommendations were made to remove certain menu favorites, such as chicken nuggets, but students have embraced the new model and are trying new, healthier foods.

On the cost side, scratch-cooked entrees prepared with USDA foods break even with pre-made entrees—food costs go down but labor costs rise. But scratch cooking offers a greater variety of lunch choices, according to a study from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an international organization of food and nutrition professionals. Ultimately, scratch cooking was found to be “a cost-effective way to expand the variety of healthy school lunches,” the report concluded.

There’s a lot to chew on when it comes to re-thinking a meal program, but certain principles hold true.

“We’re trying to change the food system, and we’re trying to change the palates of our children to eat more healthy food,” says Detroit’s Betti Wiggins. “It’s about commitment, and seeing how we can make a difference, and honestly believing that our kids deserve better.”

Ray Bendici is special projects editor.