Laura Martin, 10, selects a banana during lunch at Reynolds Elementary in South Toledo. Each lunch includes two fruits, one protein, one vegetable, and milk. The school adopted the healthier menu in the past year.
Dark green vegetables, beans, and whole-grain rich foods probably evoke a collective “Yuck!” from some students who get those foods in their school cafeterias these days, thanks to federal government requirements for schools to serve more healthful meals.
While that response in some districts has forced administrators to ask Washington to lighten up on its mandate for schools to cut the fat from meals, that’s not a problem in Toledo Public Schools.
As some districts across the country wrestle with how to cut costs because students refuse to eat them, the percentage of students who eat lunches in TPS surpasses the national average, according to James Gant, chief business manager for the district.
Nationwide, the average is for 58-59 percent of a school’s enrollment to buy lunch while the rest take their meals from home, he said. At TPS, where about 14,000 meals are served every day, about 64 percent of the students this year pay $2 at the elementary or $2.50 at the high school levels for lunch, Mr. Gant said. That is an increase from 63 percent in the previous year when the district began serving the more healthful foods.
Participation in the National School Lunch Program dropped from about 31.7 million students in Fiscal Year 2012 to about 30.7 million in Fiscal Year 2013. More schools were actually enrolled in the program in 2013, but fewer students received lunches, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Responding to some criticism about the healthier-meals push, the House Appropriations committee on Thursday passed an agriculture budget bill that included nearly $21 billion for child nutrition that would allow schools to opt out of White House nutritional guidelines passed in 2012. The House will most likely take up the bill in the next few weeks.
Despite that move, and despite complaints from some schools about the food rules, how have TPS officials managed to avoid joining those who want the federal government to ease up on requirements to serve healthful meals? The mission led by First Lady Michelle Obama — who wrote an op-ed piece on the issue that appeared Thursday in the New York Times — helps students take ownership, Mr. Gant said.
“For the last two years we’ve worked with food service vendors to provide healthy alternatives and food tastings, then we adjust our menu,” he said. And the district’s response has apparently drawn positive reaction from students who like being invited to take part in the decision-making process.
The addition of a burrito bar and an Asian bar at the high school level are among some changes, he said. TPS is also considering a pasta and a sandwich bar.
“This shows kids we are trying to improve services,” Mr. Gant said, adding that district data do not show significant numbers of students refusing to eat the new lunch meals.
That many TPS students live in poverty may make a difference in how they view the healthier lunches, compared to more affluent students. Many kids in TPS come to school hungry, statistics show.
Shawn Carr, 12, left, Maurice Bates, 12, center, and Chris Conley, 11, eat lunch together at Reynolds Elementary in South Toledo.
Students at Birmingham Elementary like the whole grain food, and have taken to carrots, broccoli, celery, and other fresh vegetables, the school’s cafeteria manager Rose Schilt said.
“We go through salad like crazy here,” she said.
The substitution of turkey for beef in some meals has drawn few complaints. The only uprising so far has been a brief switch in ranch dressing brands; the unpopular move was reversed.
None of this is to say, however, that every student is happy with the new cafeteria fare.
“We definitely hear about the food and the changes in the food,” Mr. Gant said.
The district doesn't track how much food is discarded, Mr. Gant said, so it’s impossible to say if kids are eating everything they put on their tray or throwing more away with the healthier standards.
TPS will continue to serve the healthier meals during programs at sites during the summer, he said.
Age can play a factor in food waste, Perrysburg’s child nutrition director Lila Szozda said. At the elementary level, more food is thrown out because students aren’t given much of an option. If they hate broccoli, and broccoli is the vegetable of the day, they have to take it, which means it may end up in the trash.
High school students have more choices.
“I think at the high school level, if they are taking it, they are probably eating it,” she said.
Overall, Ms. Szozda said the district discards about the same amount of food now as it did under the old standards, but more of the waste is vegetables than in the past.
Staff writer Nolan Rosenkrans contributed to this report. Information from The Blade’s news services was also used.
Contact Rose Russell at: email@example.com or 419-724-6178.