Healthy school lunches that taste good and appeal to students are of prime importance to many parents who have shown up at school board meetings, contacted nutrition experts and requested a formal audit of the nutritional value of school meals.
Complaints range from the lack of gluten-free and vegetarian items to a desire for more scratch cooking and farm-to-school produce options and a lack of student interest in picking healthy options over "just tasty" selections.
Behind the scenes
Every day, Poudre School District provides meals to roughly 15,000 of the 26,000 students who go through the district's 45 school cafeterias.
"We have basically 45 restaurants that we're trying to keep consistent and high-quality on a daily basis," said Craig Schneider, director of PSD Child Nutrition.
Schneider said the majority of students participating in the school lunch program are elementary students; fewer than 30 percent of high school students eat in school cafeterias daily, an increase over participation in the past three years.
While maintaining those "restaurants" is a big job in itself, Schneider said the key to maintaining a healthy eating environment for students starts before produce and ingredients even reach the school cafeteria.
PSD receives about 600 cases of fresh produce every week worth about $10,000.
Using bananas as an example, Schneider said the district has learned to buy fruit in the right "stage" to serve the best product in the lunchroom.
"There are seven to 12 stages of bananas you can buy," he said. "We had to figure out, based on what the temperature is in our warehouse, when it goes out to a school and when they serve it what the best state to buy was. It's about educating yourself. ... We're produce experts."
Child Nutrition warehouse supervisor Dan Jones said the food services team works to tailor produce needs at each school.
"Because of such a short lifespan in freshness, we can really tailor our orders for our customers," he said. "We have very little residual inventory left over from one delivery to the next, which is great. It's all fresh, it looks good and it is good."
Schneider said that while much of the produce served in PSD comes from a provider in Denver, nearly 58 percent of all produce during the past growing season - which lasted from August to October - was grown locally and brought to the district as part of the Farm to School program.
Schneider said the district reaches out to all local farms that meet federal safety requirements to provide produce for the district, but many are unable to meet the needs of 15,000 meals a day or make more money selling their produce through other venues.
"A lot of them tell us they make the most money at farmer's markets," he said. "We also have a lot of local farms that already have contracts or don't want to deliver to us on a weekly basis, but we reach out to all of them."
Making healthy meals kids want to eat
Leslie Cunningham-Sabo, Ph.D., an assistant professor at CSU, said the battle of providing nutritious meals for students lies in making them appeal to children.
"There is always room for improvement on a school menu, and I don't think anyone would disagree with that," said Cunningham-Sabo, who researches child nutrition and food selection.
"But what is often not brought up is what kids want to eat and what shapes their preferences.
"If kids don't eat what is offered, then they don't get the nutritional benefit. It's really not nutritious until it's eaten."
Cunningham-Sabo said presentation of food plays almost as big of a role as taste.
"Children eat with their eyes," she said. Food needs to be appealing to kids."
Providing nutritious meals that kids want to eat while meeting a tight budget is often called the 'tri-lemma' of the school lunch program," she said.
"Satisfying your customers, i.e. students, while meeting nutrition and other federal regulations and not going over your budget is very challenging."
Schneider said the "tri-lemma" is a challenge to any school district, but PSD is constantly tweaking and testing menu items that could be healthier for students.
More often than not, Schneider said students don't like it when the cafeteria changes its mainstays. This year, students turned up their noses at whole-grain breaded chicken nuggets but are warming to whole-grain pizza crusts and pasta. Dried fruit as a substitute for traditional fruit snacks also has met with success.
"We want healthy options kids will eat," he said. "If the kids like it, that's great. If they don't, it doesn't do us any good no matter how healthy it is or how much it costs."
But many students are making healthy choices when it comes to fresh produce, Schneider said.
In a recent study, 77 percent of students said they ate at least one fruit or vegetable from the produce bar. The study recorded the number students who took and ate a fruit or vegetable at lunch, observing 16 elementary sites in PSD.
The average participation rate for PSD elementary schools was between 85 percent and 90 percent.
"The thought that kids don't get fruits and vegetables at school is false," Schneider said. "We're in February, and we still have 30 items that are fresh fruits and vegetables every day at school. There is room for improvement, but if kids weren't eating fruits and vegetables, why would we be spending $10,000 a week on it?"
Every elementary school in Poudre School District hosts a full fruit and vegetable bar each day, Schneider said.
Next year, produce bars in PSD will be linked to the traditional serving line to meet new federal and state standards requiring students take at least one fruit or vegetable.
For Zach Elementary School third-grader Kristina Nenova, 8, selecting a fruit or vegetable has become a tasty part of her daily routine.
"They're healthy, and they taste good," she said.
Classmate Emma Sitlinger, 9, said she likes the variety of choices available at the produce bar.
"There are all sorts of vegetables and fruits you can get," she said.
Answering your questions
With parent groups requesting more gluten-free options, increased cooking from scratch and lowered sodium rates, Schneider said there is room for improvement in many areas even though the food in PSD is "something to be proud of."
Schneider said the district is ahead of much state legislation concerning school food; a proposed state law to eliminate trans saturated fat would have little effect on PSD lunches, as turkey is the only food in district meals containing trans fat.
Trans fat is naturally occurring in turkey meat.
An improvement Schneider would like to see is increased cooking from scratch. We're decreasing processed items, increasing scratch cooking, increasing fruits and vegetables and increasing local products," he said.
Child Nutrition Supervisor Terri Macha said that while the district makes accommodations for any documented medical condition, gluten allergies are often undiagnosed and difficult to work around.
Since school began in August, Macha said she has received only 10 phone calls requesting gluten-free options.
"With a lot of kids, it's more of a gluten sensitivity that can't actually be diagnosed as celiac (disease)," she said. "Without that doctor's note, we do our best to get them something, but it's difficult because of the elevated price involved in those meals."
Macha said the district works with students struggling with diabetes and peanut and other allergies that could prove unsafe in school meals.
"With any food allergy, we work with each student, parent and their doctor," Schneider said.
"We're doing this for the kids," Macha added. "Every-thing we do is for the kids. We're not trying to make them sick, we're trying to make better options for them. They're kids."
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