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Three Squares at School

Federal legislation keeps district kitchens open for dinner.
School children in 25 states and 500 districts eat meals through ARAMARK food services. In District 300 in Carpentersville, Ill. alone, ARAMARK serves more than 2,000 suppers per day in six locations.
School children in 25 states and 500 districts eat meals through ARAMARK food services. In District 300 in Carpentersville, Ill. alone, ARAMARK serves more than 2,000 suppers per day in six locations.

What’s for dinner?

In thousands of school districts across the country, students are no longer asking that question to mom or dad but rather to cafeteria workers. That’s because of the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law in December 2010, which funds a third meal in schools where at least half of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, more than 21 million students will be eating dinner at school by 2015, and 29 million by 2020, at the cost of $641 million from 2011 to 2020. Advocates for the poor welcome this added nourishment for poorer students, although conservatives like Rush Limbaugh disagree. “Why even send the kids home?” he asked during a broadcast last November.

Students who eat dinner at school stay for the usual range of after-school programs, whether receiving tutoring, working on homework, or blowing off some steam on the playground. Then, the dinner bell sounds. In addition to an extra meal for children, in districts that have used their internal cafeteria staff, the program has provided those workers with valuable additional hours.

“It has opened the door of opportunity for children. It has given us the opportunity to provide a well-rounded, nutritious meal,” which includes fruits and vegetables, says Roxanne Moore, national director of wellness for schools at Sodexo food service. Sodexo serves dinners to students in some districts, as do other national vendors like Chartwells and ARAMARK. “Across the country, there are many children depending on school breakfast and school lunch meals who had been going home hungry, and might not have a full meal again until breakfast the next day.”

Growing Exponentially

Sodexo, which serves nearly 500 districts, has seen the dinner program grow “exponentially” in the past year or two, Moore says. Some have hot meals that “could very well mimic what you see in a traditional school menu,” she says. Others stick to wraps, sandwiches, and salads. “We work with customers to find out what type of program best suits their needs.”

Through ARAMARK food service, a small number of districts began serving dinner two years ago through a pilot program in 13 states and the District of Columbia that has expanded nationwide this year, says Linda Scuerman, director of nutrition and menu development for ARAMARK Education. Now, ARAMARK serves about 500 districts totaling 3,000 schools in 25 states.

San Antonio dinnerScuerman says that whatever is served for dinner depends partly on the equipment available at the school; not all are able to serve hot meals, for example. But either way, “Our menus are designed to meet those specific [federal nutritional] requirements,” she says. “We’ll vary the portion sizes to meet the requirements across the age group we’re serving. Our overall meal patterns are very similar to what we’ve seen in the past with the school lunch program.”

In District 300 in Carpentersville, Ill., Aramark serves more than 2,000 suppers per day in six locations, about double the volume that the vendor served when the program began in 2010, says Scott Rodgers, general manager of food services and an ARAMARK employee.

With 39 percent of the district’s 7,800 students on free or reduced-price lunch, “That’s a lot of students that depend on food service for nutritious meals,” he says. “The supper program has just given us one more opportunity each day to provide students with healthy food. … We do some on-site preparation, while some is done in the production kitchen and ‘satellited’ out to the buildings, where it’s then served. We have core menus that the nutritionists at the corporate office produce for us, to act as a base and make sure we’re meeting the new regulations.”

School food service departments are expected to be financially viable and not pulling from the educational budget, whether they’re paying an outside vendor or supplying food in-house, especially with districts being so cash-strapped, says Deanna Hoelscher, director of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the University of Texas School of Public Health.

That’s part of why larger districts, in particular, tend to turn to outside companies, she says. “You don’t want them to lose money, where the district has to reimburse [the nutrition services department],” she says. “You do get economies of scale [in larger districts], but it’s very difficult to manage these programs.”

That’s because of the juggling act that ensues given the large numbers of meals now at three per day, short time-frame during which they’re served, and precise nutritional requirements. “There’s a lot of units, and you’re serving a lot of food in a very short time period, and there are federal requirements that go along with it,” Hoelscher says.
Serving Dinner In-house

A few public school districts are handling the third meal on their own, without contracting the service to an outside vendor. Tony Geraci, executive director of nutrition services at Memphis (Tenn.) Independent School District, says his district is serving 15,000 suppers per night in 80 schools as of late September, a year after the dinner program started. He expects the district to be serving closer to 30,000 hot, nutritionally balanced meals in 120 schools, nearly half of the 300 in the district, by the end of this year.

They’re choosing the schools based partly on parent and student requests, and they’re not expanding to the whole district at once out of concern that they might, almost literally, bite off more than they can chew. “It’s a process,” Geraci says. “You don’t just open the floodgates. Then you get a tsunami.”

In a district in which 85 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, “The impact is transforming in the school district,” Geraci says. “Most of the meals our kids get come from us, the ones they can count on, at least. This gap between lunch and [the next day’s] breakfast is huge. If we’re trying to encourage our kids to stay after school and participate in enrichment programs that fortify math, science, language arts, sports—this is just a great way to support our teachers and our coaches, and to have healthier kids.”

Another district handling the program internally is the San Antonio (Texas) Independent School District, which ramped up its school dinner program earlier this fall in 67 sites, mostly elementary schools and four middle schools, says Sally Cody, executive director of food and child nutrition services. “This is giving our staff another venue for working a few more hours and earning a little more,” Cody says. “They know the recipes; they know how to serve the meals. They know the safety regulations. They’re going to be preparing the meals on these sites.”

Typically, it’s amounted to an extra 2 to 2½ hours per food service employee, who previously had worked between 5- and 8-hour shifts, Cody says. There’s usually at least one full-time employee in the mix because part-timers don’t necessarily have the keys and access codes required to lock up buildings once dinner is over.

San Antonio is still “tweaking” how the meal service works; they originally planned to prepare meals ahead of time and put them in warmers and coolers, but many schools either didn’t have enough equipment or didn’t have enough extra electrical outlets in cafeterias, particularly those housed in older buildings, Cody says. They began staffing for dinner hour at one cafeteria employee per 50 students but aren’t totally settled on that ratio.

A Focus on Healthy Meals

The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act stipulates that states receive funding for the dinner program through the federal Child and Adult Care Feeding Program (CACFP), which also serves child and adult day care centers, which means that nutritional guidelines are slightly different from guidelines for school lunches, Scuerman says. They still include requirements to include meat, grains, fruits, vegetables and milk, but the federal child feeding program, or CACFP, guidelines have not been updated to govern levels of fat or sodium, for example.

A well-balanced meal that the cafeterias at 67 schools of the San Antonio ISD are serving students for dinner.

ARAMARK expects the regulations for CACFP, last changed in the 1990s, to be updated this fall, but Scuerman doesn’t expect many surprises and says the company has been attempting to anticipate what those changes will involve.

“We’re working internally on recipe development, and externally with manufacturers, to develop and source healthy products,” Scuerman says. “We’ve had a focus on reducing fat, sodium, and sugar, and adding whole grains wherever we could, for about five years now. We saw the handwriting on the wall with the USDA and have been moving very actively in that direction.”

Hoelscher also expects the CACFP guidelines to be updated after the presidential election with input from the Institute of Medicine and other federal guidelines. “The science is showing that you really need to look at some of these federal meal programs,” she says. “It’s not just Michelle Obama. We’ve been talking to people who are implementing the program now, and child service nutrition directors and food service manager companies knew this was coming. They’ve been gearing up for it as far as serving more fruits and vegetables. That is the nice thing, that they know ahead of time and can begin the build-up for it.”

To date, providers and districts have not been required to run the same nutrient analysis for dinners as they have been for breakfasts and lunches, Moore says. “That being said, it doesn’t mean we’re not paying attention,” she says. “Our programs are still focused on serving low-fat milk, healthy fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat protein.” Moore adds, “Certainly, they don’t want you serving foods that are high in fat or that sort of thing. But lunch and breakfast because of the high level of participation have been evolving a little more rapidly with regard to policy changes.”

But Sodexo has treated dinner the same way, Moore says. “We certainly are cognizant. We’re trying to send a consistent message with what we’re doing during the school day and what we’re doing with the dinner program,” she says. “We see the dinner program as an extension of what we’re trying to do during the academic school day.”

Memphis starts from the standpoint that 60 percent of the dinner plate should be fresh fruits and vegetables, 20 percent whole grains, and 20 percent protein, Geraci says. “We don’t have problems adhering to the guidelines. We cook from scratch” in an 110,000-square-foot central kitchen in addition to school kitchens, he says. “I don’t send my chicken out to be turned into nuggets. I cook chicken.”

The nutrition services department at Memphis ran a surplus of $7.3 million last year, he adds, which has been reinvested in school kitchens, 98 percent of which have new steamers, ovens, and refrigerators. It’s also in the agriculture business, with a 50-acre central farm and a growing network of urban farms located on school sites and tended to by students, faculty and three full-time staff.

“We’re the first vertically integrated public school nutrition program in the country,” Geraci says, adding that he believes they’re the only one, at least anywhere near the same scale. “We live in the richest delta country on the planet. We can grow food year round. Not to utilize that [in all three meals during the day] is not fair to the kids.”

San Antonio employs a registered dietician and nutritionists to plan and coordinate menus throughout the day. “You’re looking throughout the day, providing optimal nutrition for those age groups,” Cody says. “There’s calorie ranges, minimum and maximum. You have to look at nutritional analysis. And we don’t want to serve the same thing for supper that you served for lunch.”

The district already has in place what’s required under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in terms of nutrition, she says. “We had a lot of the things in place: grains, whole wheat, fat-free chocolate milk. We were already offering fresh fruit, and two or three varieties of fruit every day.”

Nutrition Education

Whether for lunch or dinner, ARAMARK tries to tie meal planning back to nutrition education, Scuerman says. “It’s important for us to be able to connect the food with the nutrition aspect,” she says. “Children are going to learn healthy lifestyles by what they see and what they learn through food.”

And ARAMARK has introduced a Healthy for Life online portal—with information on everything from nutrition on a budget, to the benefits of whole grains, to the need for moderation in use of salt—designed to give parents that same connection.

“We think it’s important to make sure parents understand what’s going on in the child nutrition programs and how they can help support that,” Scuerman says.“If children only see whole grains in school, they’re not going to be as willing to broadly incorporate them into their lifestyle as they will if they see it in school and at home.

Hungry Kids Don’t Learn

Children might resist eating fruits and vegetables rather than the high-calorie, high-fat diet they’re potentially used to, but grown-ups should persist, Hoelscher says. “Kids will have the opportunity to see healthy meals modeled. It doesn’t make sense to have federal guidelines promoting fruit and vegetable consumption, and then you don’t feed that to kids,” Hoelscher says. “You need to have eight to 15 exposures to a food before it becomes part of your regular routine. When this [updated CACFP] legislation goes into effect, it’s important for us to give it a chance to work.”

“Hungry kids don’t learn. They just don’t,” Memphis’ Geraci concludes. “We’ve hit the ground running, and it just keeps growing. It definitely transforms lives and campuses.”  DA

Ed Finkel is a contributing writer to District Administration.