Balancing nutrition and taste at school
|Second graders Heather Hoskins and Draydon Julian vitist with Castle Heights lunch room mananager Mary Chidester.|
Proper nutrition and food that tastes good is a delicate balance at best but with children and teenagers it's almost an impossibility. That is Sharon Patten's job every school day of the year at the Carbon School District. She and her 10 managers play the balancing act everyday. They are required by law to give each child a certain number of calories, they have to stay within a budget, they strive to serve wholesome nutritional food but the key point is the kids have to eat it. "If they don't like it they won't eat it," she says with a smile.
Patten's quest to keep the balancing act began in 1989, the year she was named child nutrition director of the Carbon County School District. At that time all she knew was that "my ladies could cook and I was supposed to keep the program in the black," she explains. "I knew nothing about the school lunch program because, if you can believe it, they hired me to be the food service director after being a school secretary for 10 years."
With no substantial school food service experience, the school-secretary-turned-food service-director sought help wherever she could find it. She quickly joined the American School Food Service Association and developed valuable contacts among her school nutrition peers. It was the beginning of a long and positive relationship, as she later went on to serve a term as president of the Utah School Food Service Association and in 2002 was named ASFSA's Outstanding Director of the Year in the West Region.
Patten explains that her program really began when she read a flyer from the association announcing an upcoming seminar. It read, "Do You Want to Change Your Image?" She decided to attend the seminar in Phoenix, Ariz., which was conducted by school food service marketing consultants and, "was a complete eye-opener to me," remembers Patten. "I just couldn't take enough in. For the first time, I saw that you didn't have to do the traditional school lunch. I saw that students could serve themselves, or that you could even have a barbecue on the school patio."
With her imagination fired up by the seminar, Patten returned to Price with a renewed sense of excitement and began changing the program.
One could say that the rest is history. Now, some 15 years later, the program is still developing and she is still using her imagination and creativity as she manages the school lunch program.
There are 3580 students in the school system and this year 48 percent of the students are fed through the free or reduced program. Twelve schools are involved in the hot lunch and breakfast programs, which includes two preschools, five elementary schools, two junior high schools, two senior high schools, and a handicapped facility. Approximately 2470 lunches are served daily and another 1300 breakfasts are eaten. All these meals are prepared and served by 34 lunch room staff, 10 of which are managers. Patten operates on a $1.1 million dollar budget, expending about $570,000 towards labor and under $650,000 to food costs. She also operates a summer food service program.
Variety seems to be the key in pleasing the students. "We mainly look for foods that kids like, "explains Patten, "and choice is the key."
|Karen Birch places the fresh salad in the bar, along with several choices of fruits and vegetables.|
Patten explains that she is part of a food co-op with 12 other Utah school districts. Together with districts like Severe, Cache, Logan, Jordan, Emery, Alpine and Provo, they share their menus, bid on food, purchase it as a group and utilize one central distributer. "This not only keeps the cost of the food down but it gives us more choices and offers a wider variety of menus." The elementary menus change daily and reflect in many cases the food that is purchased through the co-op efforts.
So what are the choices? It is the same every day at the high school. A little less than half of the high school students take advantage of the hot lunch program. This past Monday 250 students went through four different food stations. The most popular station are foods most often eaten by teenagers. Foods like pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs, french fries, chicken nuggets and chicken sandwiches.
A second food court includes three different tacos, like Navajo, taco salads, hard or soft shell tacos, with a variety of topping like chicken, beans, chili, and rice.
A third station includes more nutritional choices like salads, meatballs and spaghetti, raviolis, and fresh rolls. This does change on Wednesdays where students are given fried or spicy chicken, potatoes and gravy, chicken wings, or roast beef and gravy. A fourth food court is a simple but nutritious fresh turkey deli sandwich with chips.
All this for only $1.50 a station and yet over 60 percent of the students choose to jump in their vehicles and race towards the fast food outlets where Patten says they pay double or triple for a less nutritional lunch.
The story is different at Castle Heights Elementary where over 97 percent of the children eat the hot lunch program. "We have very few sack lunches," says Mary Chidester, manager. Patten explained that this is the case with almost all the elementary schools. "Our fruit and vegetable bar, offering two or three fruits daily and as many vegetables. Choices this past Monday included salad, Chinese noodles, craisins, pears, and peaches, along with the main course meal: chicken strips, oven fries, rice crispy treat, milk and juice. And for the elementary children the cost is just $1.10 per serving. This menu changes daily. Lunch meals must have 756 calories per serving.
Breakfast is also served at every school, including the high school. A required 586 calories is mandatory for a breakfast serving.
Patten's program hasn't changed for 15 years because, "It works," she says.
Summarizing her program Patten uses three words, "Nutritional, taste, and choice." To balance these three she and her 34 lunch room staff need to be innovative and creative.