Shawnee Dispatch

Area districts react to lunch changes

Basehor-Linwood High School freshmen Ally Nahrebeski, Raeney Seaton and Abbey Mellies eat lunch May 17 in the school’s small cafeteria. Enlarge photo

June 5, 2012, 3:58 p.m. Updated: 6 June 2012, 12:00 a.m.

Districts hire outside contractor in response to new USDA mandates

Two area school districts have found a simple way to serve healthy lunches while keeping costs low: Just hire somebody else to do it.

The Basehor-Linwood and Bonner Springs-Edwardsville school boards each voted last month to hand their food-service operations over to a contractor, pending approval from the Kansas State Department of Education. Officials with both districts said the move would allow for better lunches for students and make it a breeze to meet new federal health guidelines, while keeping budgets manageable.

If budgets stay tight as federal requirements grow stricter, food-service contractors could be coming to a lot more Kansas districts in coming years, said David Howard, Basehor-Linwood superintendent.

“If we continue to see our budget shrink, I think superintendents and boards will continue to look at ways to become fiscally responsible,” Howard said.

The Basehor and Bonner districts are both contracting with Opaa Food Management, a Chesterfield, Mo.-based company that serves food in about 90 Missouri school districts. Opaa is expanding into Kansas for the first time after 30-plus years in Missouri.

According to KSDE, only seven Kansas districts currently outsource their food service, but about 125 districts in Missouri do so, said Greg Frost, a vice president for Opaa.

The company is able to purchase food at vastly larger volumes than school districts can on their own, Frost said, keeping costs low.

Both Howard and Bonner Springs superintendent Robert VanMaren said they believed Opaa's food would be better than what their districts currently serve, as well. Much of Opaa's food is made from scratch, salad bars include locally grown produce, and students can have a choice of two or three different meals each day.

Across the Basehor-Linwood district, Howard said, only about 50 percent of students eat the standard hot lunch each day. But that should change, he said.

“There's no doubt in my mind it's going to increase participation,” Howard said.

Basehor-Linwood High School sophomore Amber Garver was one of a handful of students who joined administrators on a trip to two Platte County, Mo., schools to judge Opaa's offerings.

Garver said the food there was definitely a cut above what she'd eaten in Basehor-Linwood schools, with more options and fresh fruits and vegetables.

“That's what I really liked,” Garver said. “You could tell it was fresher.”

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When it comes to food, Luke Goff isn’t too picky, and he doesn’t mind a few more fruits and vegetables on his plate.

But not all students are as open-minded about what they eat as the Bluejacket-Flint Elementary School sixth-grader, and that’s the challenge districts are grappling with: how to create menus that will appeal to young eaters under federal mandates requiring those menus include healthier offerings.

“It’s going to be a culture change that’s going to have to happen,” said Amy Droegemeier, the De Soto school district’s director of student nutrition, on mandated changes to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program that go into effect July 1.

Those changes require districts to serve more fruits, vegetables and whole grains per meal while reducing calories and sodium, among other changes. Five subgroups of vegetables, such as dark green and red/orange, will have to be offered each week, while at least half the flour used in food items like pizza crust, pasta, breads and tortillas will have to be rich in whole grain. And limits will be placed on the amount of grains of any variety that can be offered per week. Only fat-free or 1 percent milk may be served, as well as 100 percent juice.

Changes to the National School Breakfast Program will take effect in July 2013.

The changes could come with a hit to districts’ wallets, too. Julie Henry, the Baldwin City school district’s director of food services, estimates that it will cost an additional 8 cents per meal, after the per-meal reimbursement from the USDA, to feed K-12 students in her district next school year.

“It’s a worry,” she said, noting that most districts aren’t able to entirely fund their breakfast and lunch programs through the fees they receive from parents and federal and state reimbursements.

Another big question for food administrators is whether students still will eat what’s on their lunch trays if it looks, and even tastes, differently than it did before.

Nancy Coughenour, food services manager for the Shawnee Mission school district, says yes — if the students are given a chance to become acclimated to the idea. She began planning next school year’s menu in the fall of 2011 but has been getting ready for the changes she knew were coming for even longer than that.

“We’ve been working on that for several years,” she said of increasing the whole-grain offerings in pasta, rice, and hamburger and hot dog buns.

A couple of years ago, the district also started adding romaine lettuce to the salads and making its own seasonings from scratch for tacos and spaghetti sauce, Coughenour said.

“A gradual change is much better accepted than a drastic change overnight,” she said, noting that student response thus far had largely been positive.

Concern was raised by other districts, however, about the limitations the changes will place on amount and variety of food. Barb Smith, student nutrition coordinator for the Tonganoxie school district, said she was worried about having to reduce the size of items such as homemade rolls.

“I think pizza’s probably going to be an issue,” she said of another popular lunch item.

Smith said she was waiting to plan her menu in its entirety until she went through the training sessions on the mandates that will be offered this summer by the Kansas State Department of Education.

Food items students can expect to see a lot more of next school year, Henry said, will include carrots, sweet potato fries or tots, salad, spinach and broccoli. Coughenour said she plans to introduce a grilled chicken wrap with whole-grain tortilla. Her team also is reformatting some of the dessert recipes to include whole-grain flour, she said.

The situation may get tricky, and pricey, for parents, though, if a student chooses not to take the required fruit and vegetable with lunch each day. Under the new mandates, if a student refuses to take the fruit or vegetable, Droegemeier said, districts would forfeit their federal and state reimbursement for the meal and would have to charge a per-item price.

“Which may end up becoming extra additional cost to our families,” she said, even those with students on the free and reduced price lunch program. Currently, families who qualify for the reduced price lunch program pay no more than 40 cents per meal.

Droegemeier said information about the changes already had been included in two recent district newsletters, and more information will be sent out to district parents before the start of next school year.

“So that they’re talking to their kids,” she said.

Districts agreed creativity in meal planning, recipes and finding ways to motivate students to eat what’s being offered will be crucial to the success of the changes. Both Henry and Droegemeier also said it would take a lot of parental support at home to keep students on track at school.

“I think it can be very, very positive,” Henry said. “I’m worried from a budget standpoint about it, but if it encourages the kids to eat the food and the schools can afford it, then obviously it’s a good thing in the long run. It’s hard to judge until after it’s gone into effect and we see if it really improves what the kids are eating.”

This story has been updated to reflect a clarification to the federal and state reimbursement districts would receive if a student refuses to take a fruit or vegetable with their lunch each day.

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