School districts get creative about convincing students to embrace healthier lunches

Posted at 5:30 AM, Aug 31, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-31 05:30:50-04

MASON, Ohio -- Healthy school lunches might be good for students' waistlines, but they aren't necessary beneficial to schools' bottom lines.

Federal regulations that changed school lunch offerings nationwide have made students’ meals more healthful, but have taken a financial toll on school lunch programs. To try and reverse that loss, school food service departments are getting creative with their presentation and the variety of foods offered to entice students to buy their lunch at school.

Mason City Schools has seen a 10 percent drop in students buying school lunch since federal regulations mandated the meals become healthier. (Tamara Earl/Mason City Schools)

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, a reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, was passed in 2010 and provides funding for federal school meal and child nutrition programs. As part of the reform, school lunches must now contain less sodium and fat and include more whole grains and fruits and vegetables. Those changes were implemented in stages, but required significant revamping of the menu by school food service.

When the regulations first took effect and the look and taste of school lunches began to change -- and prices inched up -- many school lunch programs saw more kids packing their lunches, which resulted in a decline in sales.

Some school lunch programs have bounced back to previous levels of participation. Others, like Mason City Schools, haven’t experienced a rebound.

“Overall, we had a 10 percent drop in participation in meals,” said Tamara Earl, Mason’s child nutrition supervisor “Our average between 2001-2010 was about 56 percent meal participation. In 2011-2012 it was closer to 52 percent, in 2012-2013 it was 50 percent. With the full implementation of the regulations, it has been 48 percent for the last few years.”

Once a student has an unpleasant experience with their food -- just like a customer at a restaurant -- it is hard to win them back, said Chris Burkhardt, director of child nutrition and wellness for Lakota Local Schools. Some of the healthier foods first offered, such as whole grain bread products, were rushed to market to meet the regulations, but it took a few tries to get the products up to a high standard for kids’ palates. The products are tastier now than they were initially, but it is hard to convince kids to give the food another shot, Burkhardt said.

Lakota saw a 15 percent drop in the number of enrolled students who were purchasing school lunch following the implementation of regulations in 2012. But, that initial drop has disappeared -- lunch participation is now up by two or three percent compared to numbers seen before the regulations, Burkhardt said.

Gerry Levy -- the food service director for various small districts that share resources, including Wyoming, Milford, Madeira, Finneytown, Williamsburg and several private schools -- has observed a gradual decline in meals sold at those schools, with the exception of Wyoming, which she attributes to a specific district-wide focus on health and wellness.

Levy doesn’t think the new regulations are the only possible cause for the decline in food sales in schools. She has seen an uptick in free- and reduced-lunch applications, so there might be an economic component to that decrease as well, she said.

Most of the decline in meal participation in Sycamore Community Schools was seen at the high school. The younger grades saw little change in lunch participation. In 2011-2012, 723 meals were sold on average each day at the high school. By 2015, that number was down to 385.

“Previous to the new meal pattern, students had access to very large burgers, larger portion sizes than they needed and many dessert and snack options including 20-ounce full-sugar beverages like Gatorade,” said Jessica Johnson, director of child nutrition and wellness at Sycamore, and secretary/treasurer for School Nutrition Association of Ohio.

Getting creative

To counteract the loss, Johnson said they began polling students to see what would work best. They determined that the high school students do not value a full meal, so they added a fruit smoothie bar and custom deli sandwiches and wraps, as well as a salad bar.

Instead of setting a menu and offering a single meal option, students are now offered a variety of entrees, vegetables, fruits and other items from which to choose. The goal is to encourage students to select items they will actually eat and to reduce food waste.

When the regulations first began, many schools were seeing students wasting more food -- particularly the fruits and vegetables they are now required to take based on a provision in the regulations. Earl said she has seen much less waste as time has gone on and students have adjusted to having fruits and vegetables on their plate each day.

“We offer a minimum of 10 fruit and vegetable options every day now, so I want to believe that students can find something they will eat at least half of,” Earl said. “I have seen strong improvement in that area since five years ago. We do plate-waste studies and just last year looking at fifth and sixth graders, we definitely saw strong improvements in consumption of fruits and vegetables, with many students eating closer to all of two servings.”

School districts try to reduce waste caused by students throwing out fruits and vegetables that come with their lunches. (Tamara Earl/Mason City Schools)

Food service staff have found that being creative with the presentation of the fruits and vegetables has increased students’ consumption of those items and reduced waste. For example, in Lakota, Burkhardt said they saw a marked improvement in younger students’ consumption of oranges and apples when his staff made the fruit easier to eat by slicing it instead of offering it whole. Lunchroom staff also encouraged students to try at least one bite of a new food and gave out stickers as a reward.

“Sometimes it makes all the difference in the world if you take one bite, then that new food isn’t so scary or different,” Burkhardt said.

Some schools, especially in the junior high and high school level, have added spice bars to allow students to jazz up their plain broccoli or other food with a low-sodium spice. Many schools also have partnerships with local pizzerias, sushi and burrito restaurants to occasionally bring in food to keep students interested in the lunch program.

Levy said that as time passes, the new way of eating at school will be accepted as it becomes the new normal.

“The younger kids now, they don’t know it any other way,” Levy said. “Overall, the act has achieved the goal of making school meals more nutritious. The food is better prepared with more wholesome, higher quality foods. Losing money is a challenge for us but we have proven it can be accomplished. I think participation is starting to trend upward again.”