The answer. A lot more than I thought.
First, I need to be honest and say that our family does not participate in school lunch.
For us, it is an economic issue. Our school lunch is close to $3.00 per child per day. And because of my skills as a “coupon ninja” at saving money on groceries, I’m able to prepare a sack lunch from home for significantly less.
(Much to the displeasure of my kids who would LOVE to eat school lunch a couple of times per week.)
And because my kids don’t eat school lunch, I really don’t have an opinion on it. I can’t say that I love it. But I’m not an advocate against it either. I guess you could say that I am Switzerland…neutral.
But last week, the School Nutrition Association Annual National Conference was held in Kansas City at Bartle Hall. And I was asked to spend some time on the conference expo hall floor as a “mom” with the Directors of Food Service from Park Hill and North Kansas City Districts. (And I made the news, you can see that here.)
Here are some of the lessons I learned…
Food at school is different than food at home. Did you know there is a national standard that all food served at school must be whole grain by the 2014 school year? Or that right now, fifty percent of all grains served at lunch must be whole-grain rich? Me either.
What does this mean? Your kids are eating whole-grain Frosted Flakes and Cheetos that aren’t even available at the grocery store. Yep. So the snack food we serve our kids at home is “less” than what they serve at schools.
Directors of Food Service read every item’s label. As I spent time with both directors, I noticed their first question to any vendor was, “What does the label look like? How clean is it?” They read and analyze labels more than most mothers I know. They care.
They don’t want to serve anything with too many ingredients they can’t pronounce. And better yet, they are constantly striving for ways to integrate the Farm To Table (called Farm To School) Movement into their schools.
Here is a picture of Ronda McCullick, Director of Food Service Operations for Park Hill School District. She implemented a Fresh From the Farm Program to bring students local produce. As part of the program students take field trips to Powell Garden’s Harvest Garden. How cool is that?
They are like a restaurant (only for 15,000 kids). They do not receive additional funding from the school budget. Each director has a budget that is self-funded. So those extra “add-ons”? They are to subsidize for a school lunch that may be more expensive than average, for equipment, staff, etc. Essentially, they have to make sure the items they put on the menu “sell”. When they don’t, they have waste and waste costs money. So it is a balance between “super nutritious” and “what kids will eat”. And as any parent knows…that’s freakin’ hard.
They love their kiddos. No, I should say seriously love. They realize that some of the kiddos in their programs only receive food when it is delivered at school. They strive to teach each kiddo about different foods (like avocados, jicama, and mangos), nutritional-taste ratio (I tasted six different breakfast bars with one director…and she choose the one that tasted best and had the best nutritional qualities – even though it was $.25 more than any other bar) and adding good things to items they love. (I was able to taste mushrooms added to taco meat to increase the nutritional value. Even better, it was delicious. See recipe HERE.)
To be honest, I was floored. These men and women are delicately balancing running a HUGE restaurant while adhering to federal standards on health & nutrition, all the while making sure the kiddos eat what they receive. I would not want their job. And yet, both women that I met, genuinely loved what they did.
So will I start letting my kids have school lunch? I’m not sure.
Why? Because it is still a money issue for our family. But I’ll tell you this, after spending time with those two directors, it is not a nutritional one.
Disclosure: I was compensated to attend the School Nutrition Associate Annual Conference, but the written remarks are entirely my own. Want more information – check out my full disclosure statement.