Here's a re-print of an article I did for Natural Awakenings - West Michigan magazine in April 2009. School lunches have gotten a bad rap, and rightfully so! But in many cases it's not through lack of effort or passion - it's through lack of money.
The photo here is from Countryside Elementary (Byron Center Public Schools). Every elementary school has a full-service salad bar in the lunch room, and makes an effort to serve healthy food within their budget.
Byron Center Public Schools Celebrates Michigan Week with Local Fare on the Lunch Menu
By Julie Hurley
It doesn’t sound like your typical school hot lunch fare: a Michigan cherry burger on a wholegrain bun, roasted asparagus, mixed fruit shortcake on an Awrey’s Biscuit and Peterson Farms apple slices, but it is what Byron Center Public Schools (BCPS) will be serving up to its students during Michigan Week, held May 17-21.
These are just a few of the spotlighted local items on the BCPS hot lunch menu, which coincides with the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Detroit during the same week. Although the Kent County school already features as many locally sourced items as budget and time allow, this is the first year that they are publicly highlighting and featuring them for all to see.
Susan Meyer, Food Services Director for BCPS for the past 10 years, said that the school lunch program gets a worse rap than what they deserve.
“The West Michigan Food Services Director’s Group, which meets every month, began talking about this last fall,” she said. “We wanted to market our programs in a better light than what we had been receiving. We wanted to get out there and show everyone that we’re using local products as much as possible.”
The marketing committee from this group began working with Gordon Food Service to come up with products for the schools to choose from. They gave each district a template from which they could choose some or all items to feature on their menu.
“Close to 100 districts across the state, with a lot from west and northern Michigan, have chosen to participate in the program,” said Meyer. “It’s a good showing for the first year and it’s something we’re going to build upon for future years.”
Although the menu sounds basic enough, it’s not an easy thing to pull off in an oftentimes underequipped school kitchen.
“Take our fresh Michigan asparagus for example,” said Meyer. “Because many of our schools don’t have actual ovens, we’ll have to roast it in our central kitchen and then truck it out to each school. We have to time it correctly and not cook it too far ahead of time and risk it getting soggy. We want the kids to like it.”
Meyer, who has trained in culinary arts and has owned her own wedding and catering business, firmly believes in cooking foods in a healthful manner and preferably from scratch.
“No matter how badly we want to make food from scratch, it’s not financially possible,” said Meyer. “The lunch budget is all on it’s own. We don’t take from the general fund. Each year we have to make that budget and also try to make money to buy updated equipment when we can.”
Based on the national average for producing a lunch, BCPS and other public schools across the nation gets reimbursed up to $2.68 for free or reduced priced lunches served, which includes labor. Districts also receive $.25 per full-priced meal served to help offset food and labor costs.
“It’s not an easy thing to just buy natural foods, considering our financial restraints,” said Meyer. “The labor and time involved in the food prep drives the prices up even more. Not only that, but we don’t even have an oven in many of the school kitchens to cook raw, fresh foods, including chicken. We’d also have to cut back on the lunch choices at each school.”
This could be a big deal, especially at the high school, where there are over 20 lunch choices for the students.
“Our high school is one of the best high schools around; no one could complain about that,” said Meyer. “The kids can choose from veggie burgers, grab-n-go salads, made-to-order and sub sandwiches, among many others. The salad bar even has enough protein on it to forego a hot item like chicken nuggets.”
BCPS hasn’t raised prices of its lunches in four years, and depending on the budget the school may have to revisit the subject in the near future. If parents asked for more made-from-scratch and non-processed foods with the understanding that the cost would be higher for lunch, Meyer could take it to the BCPS Board of Education and raise prices with the School Board's approval.
With the recent spotlight shown upon the school lunch by television programs like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, many people are starting to take a closer look at the school hot lunch, including our nation’s decision-makers. The Healthy School Meals Act of 2010 (H.R. 4870) will “help schools offer plant-based vegetarian options if they choose to do so. It directs the USDA to conduct a pilot program to determine what healthful plant-based protein products children like and are easy to prepare for school breakfasts and lunches. Based on the findings of this pilot, the USDA is directed to then add such products to the commodities list, thus reducing significantly their cost.” (http://www.healthyschoollunches.org/legislative/hsma.cfm)
Research has shown that introducing just one low-fat plant-based meal a week can begin to correct a child’s poor nutrition. Since 2050 students take hot lunch each day at BCPS, this could make a significant difference in the health of the community.
Luckily BCPS is ahead of the curve. There’s a full salad bar at every school, including all elementary schools and it’s been a non-carbonated beverage school for the past seven years. It’s also one of only two schools in Kent County that does not have a contract with Coca-Cola. Even so, more changes do need to be made and she believes that everyone can begin to work in a more positive direction with what they already have.
“We need to teach kids to make healthy choices. Portion control is one of the big things many don’t teach. It’s simple: calories in, calories out,” said Meyer. “I believe in moderation. In leading by example, I try to help others understand that the food in people’s lives makes a difference. “