Kids may be on the fast track for gourmet meals at school -- or, at least, better meals. Following a report that student participation in the school lunch program is bad and getting worse, the Mountain View Whisman School District hired a new director of child nutrition last month to get more palatable food into the cafeterias.
Juan Cordon is the school district's first director of child nutrition, and has been steeped in food service management for over 22 years. Cordon has worked for major food service companies like Sodexo and Marriott, and more recently served as the food service director for the Santa Clara Unified School District for 13 years.
Cordon said he helped transition Santa Clara Unified away from frozen, re-heated meals, and towards fresh meals made from scratch at a district site. After hiring new chefs and revamping the kitchens, Cordon said kids were eating more fruits and vegetables, and getting introduced to foods they may not have tasted before.
"Even simple things, like replacing tortillas with lavash bread," Cordon said.
Instead of frozen single-serve pizzas and taco pockets, the district now has flank steak salad, roasted chicken breast, and lentil salad. Hamburgers started coming with lettuce and tomato, and romaine lettuce is served as an alternative to iceberg lettuce.
Cordon said the Mountain View Whisman School District hired him with three goals in mind: they wanted the food to be healthier, they wanted kids to enjoy it more and they wanted to make the food from scratch. The last of the three might be the trickiest.
"We're still in the learning stage," Cordon said. "In some cases the facilities need to get caught up to speed to make that transition."
"From scratch," in this case, could mean that food is produced at Crittenden Middle School, packaged and shipped out to district schools to be consumed the next day. If muffins are on the menu tomorrow, Cordon said, the district would buy up the ingredients from local organic producer and cook them at Crittenden.
"In the past we may have served a muffin that was pre-made and frozen. Now we're buying the batter," Cordon said.
Only three weeks into the school year, Cordon said the district has moved away from canned fruit, and offers up apples, oranges and plums to accompany meals. Schools are also serving antibiotic-free hamburgers and nitrate-free hotdogs, though it's unclear whether those changes are here to stay.
The new school food will work along new federal guidelines, which requires, among other things, that grains be at least 51 percent whole grain. He said its the department's job to make sure when they introduce brown rice and whole-grain spaghetti to children in the schools, they do it in a way that kids will enjoy it.
"It'll take a while though, it won't happen overnight," Cordon said.
An uphill climb
A report by Lunch Lessons LLC at a school board meeting last June found that average daily participation in the school food program dropped anywhere from 1 to 2 percent during the 2013-14 school year, bringing district-wide participation down to 40 percent.
Across the elementary schools, 75 percent of students that qualified for free lunch participated in the school lunch program. For students who pay full price for meals, that number drops to just 15 percent. Due in part to the dwindling participation, the district's Child Nutrition Department has run over budget since at least 2011, with expenses exceeding revenues by as much as $144,000.
Cordon admitted that some costs could go up when they weigh the different food options and opt for organic, whole-grain bagels over the alternatives, but said the department will have more money to spend if the food attracts more kids to purchase hot lunches.
Cordon said it's possible school lunch participation is in a downward trend because the food hasn't kept up with changing tastes. He said kids are being exposed to food at grocery stores like Sprouts and Whole Foods, and that the community wants higher quality food at the school level -- and school districts need to follow suit.
"We want to take the stigma away from school food," Cordon said.