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Re-imagining hot lunch

Fewer students buying lunch from school

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Beyond outdated school menus, the department has a number of other problems.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.

Comments

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Posted by MVCA mom
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jul 1, 2014 at 2:15 pm

I really hope the district can do something about the school lunches. They are just awful. I never let my child eat them anymore after giving it a few tries and hearing about chicken patties that were still frozen in the middle and seeing kids being served Cheetos (reduced sodium, but still total junk) and chocolate milk. So at his school, it's basically only the free and reduced price lunch kids who eat school lunches. The more well-off kids have parents who are able to feed them better, and do. I would gladly support school meals if they were of better quality, but so far it's just a disgrace.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Food was good
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jul 1, 2014 at 2:51 pm

Food was good, i can't remember it being bad and that was over 30yrs ago.

It worked, here I am a fine example of human form.

Bottom line there is nothing broken, just a few yahoos making noise.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by MV mom
a resident of Castro City
on Jul 1, 2014 at 3:06 pm

It would be an enlightening project to compare what the kids who on free/reduced price lunch are fed vs what those who bring food from home eat on a given school day. It is so depressing to see a very easily distracted first grader being fed - a cinnamon roll, a package of graham crackers and apple juice as his free breakfast, eaten at recess as his first/only meal of the morning. Did he or his teacher have any chance of keeping calm and focused after that sugar-packed "breakfast"?? Follow the breakfast by a terrible lunch as the main food for many kids. I would have loved it if a healthy meal were served at lunch and I didn't have to pack lunch every day.

The district didn't need to do a study to figure out they were serving lousy food to poor kids - any single visit to a school cafeteria was enough to know that and all the parents are disappointed by food options at school. A low-income mom lamented that her son had learned to eat pizza and junk food at elementary school and now refused to eat her soups, beans and other home-cooked food.

Read this book to understand how we got here and what works for healthy lunches:
Web Link

I know someone who worked in a low-income school in another community and they switched to 100% healthy lunches, fruit only for dessert and she said it to 6 weeks until the kids started devouring and enjoying fruits and veggies as part of their lunch. They nearly gave up but said the kids learned to love fruits, soups, vegetables, etc.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Scott Lamb
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jul 1, 2014 at 3:31 pm

Scott Lamb is a registered user.

This is old news! What happened at the meeting on June 27th? Did they renew the Sodexo contract by June 30th?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Dennis
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jul 1, 2014 at 10:59 pm

I well remember eating hot lunch in the school cafeterias at both Wilbur Junior High School and Cubberley High School back in the sixties and it to me was a treat. Everyone got the same meal and was served on a cafeteria tray with milk and dessert. They were alway good, healthy, and I loved them.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Ellen Wheeler
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jul 2, 2014 at 12:30 am

To answer the question above, at our board meeting on June 30 our board was presented with 3 bids from food service companies. One of those companies was Sodexo. All 3 of the bids were higher than expected, so our superintendent and CBO recommended declining to accept any of the bidders. The board accepted that recommendation. Our CBO will be working over the summer to finish this process so our school children can have fresh, healthy food when they come back to school in August. (I am a MVWSD school board member.)


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