Most people don't have fond memories of school lunches, but the Mountain View Whisman School District is taking steps to change that by revamping menus, improving the quality and bolstering student participation.
In a collaborative effort with the school district, Google and Lunch Lessons LLC conducted an assessment of the district's Child Nutrition Department. Their findings were grim, spurring the district to launch a comprehensive reform of its school meals program.
At a board meeting last month, Ann Cooper of Lunch Lessons explained that average daily participation in the food program had slipped another 2 percent in the 2014 school year, continuing a downward trend. The decrease was across the board: breakfast, lunch, free and reduced meals, and at both elementary schools and middle schools. Free and reduced lunch participation took the biggest hit, dropping from 80.8 percent to 73.8 percent in one year.
In her presentation to the board, Cooper suggested that the Child Nutrition Department revise its menus to reflect a changing demographic, and keep up with what kids want to eat.
"The district, as you all know, has changing demographics," Cooper told the board. "We've seen menus that have been very similar for 20 years while peoples' palates are changing."
Beyond outdated school menus, the department has a number of other problems. It has run over budget since at least 2011, with expenses exceeding revenues by as much as $144,000. Cooper said the department also did not have clear goals, needs to optimize central food production and lacks both dining space and walk-in refrigerator capacity.
Timing is on their side if district officials want to make changes and improvements right away. A 20-year contract with Sodexo, a food service management company, expires June 30. This means the district has the opportunity to start fresh with a new company. Which apparently is a good thing Cooper mentioned that the relationship between Sodexo and the school district hasn't always been smooth.
The district has already issued a request for proposals in search of a new food service management company, and will make recommendations to the board at a special meeting on June 27.
To help make improvements and otherwise meet the recommendations made by Google and Lunch Lessons, the board also approved creating a new position director of child nutrition.
Board trustee Chris Chiang said the district can look to Bay Area companies like Revolution Foods for inspiration and ideas for high quality meals and menu items as the Child Nutrition Department makes changes over the coming school year. He said the meals include fresh produce and meat, including fish, that can give the district an idea of how high the bar can be set.
"A lot of people do not think school meals are great, or that they're destined to be unhealthy and bland," Chiang said. "But if you look and see what progress has been made, it's really not that way. Meals have changed."
The district is unlikely to set up an actual, direct relationship with a company like Revolution Foods, though. Revolution Foods produces meals off-site and sends them into schools, which Cooper said would fail to take advantage of all the on-site food production capabilities of the district.
The recommendations did, however, suggest potential relationships between the Child Nutrition Department and Google, the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and the Living Classrooms program.
Ann Cooper and Beth Collins of Lunch Lessons contacted Vicki Moore, executive director of Living Classrooms, to discuss a possible partnership. Moore said they believed the Living Classrooms program, which does lessons on growing, harvesting and eating fresh fruits and vegetables at the schools, would be a natural partner with the Child Nutrition Department.
Moore said there are no current plans to expand Living Classrooms' role at the district level for food services. She said the district always has the option to expand its program from kindergarten through third grade all the way to eighth grade.