Making School Lunch Healthy and Tasty on a Shoestring

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Oakland and W. Contra Costa school districts are innovating more nutritious, less fatty meals that kids will like

Think of Jennifer LeBarre as the general of the Oakland Unified School District’s food service.

Every day, she marshals an army of 300 employees who prepare, cook, deliver and serve 21,000 lunches (and 6,500 breakfasts) to 107 schools, some with as few as 35 students and others with more than 1,000. She must devise meals for schools that have no kitchens to warm up hot food as well as those with warming ovens.

As director of the district’s nutrition service, LeBarre crafts weekly menus that she hopes will satisfy all constituents: federal and state agencies that set guidelines on student nutrition, school administrators, parents and, last but not least, her customers—the students. She must do all of this without spending more than about $1.20 for the food on the plate – less than half of what some wealthier districts spend.

“It’s difficult to please all the people,” said LeBarre, in an obvious understatement.

These days, LeBarre is tackling a challenge that would defy many a chef: creating more-nutritious meals that aren’t more expensive. She’s determined to use more scratch cooking, fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and even vegetarian options. The healthier choices are not always embraced by the kids, at least not right away, but LeBarre is among the many school-food professionals who are taking very seriously their role in attacking childhood obesity and related ailments.

In the past few years, in fact, school lunch reform has become a cause célèbre in many school districts in the Bay Area as concerns mount about children’s health. And the Oakland school district, along with the West Contra Costa County Unified School District, is among the pioneers in injecting healthier food choices into their menus despite a paucity of resources and the challenges of re-educating taste buds.

School lunch funding in districts where many of the students are low-income is provided primarily by the National School Lunch Program, operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A revised school lunch law signed amidst much fanfare by President Barack Obama in January increases the federal reimbursement – but only by 6 cents per lunch, to a total of $2.81. The state provides another 22 cents; the $3.23 total must cover not only the food itself, but also labor — the single most expensive ingredient in producing meals — and overhead.

Schools also rely on commodities provided by the USDA, like surplus cheese, and fruit from a special program begun by former Sen. Hillary Clinton that sends surplus from local military bases.

“Once, we got bags of fresh apple slices—a ton of them—and put them on the menu three times,” said Lisa Maloney, a supervisor in the West Contra Costa County schools district nutrition service. “The kids were getting sick of them.”

Low-income school districts face a double-edged challenge: the don’t have the money for fancy food, but they have a higher percentages of kids who are overweight, as measured by the state’s physical fitness tests.

Among Oakland and West Contra Costa district students, more than a third were considered overweight in school year 2008-2009, according to the state’s fitness test. Healthy school lunches may not be a cure-all for such problems, but they play an important role in children’s and teen’s daily diet and nutrition education, says Gail Woodward-Lopez, associate director of the Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley.

“Children that eat federally reimbursable lunches tend to have better nutrition than kids who don’t,” said Woodward-Lopez. “School lunch does lead to more healthful eating.” A study published by the American Heart Journal in September 2010 backs her up. It found that the best ways to combat childhood obesity were to increase physical activity, reduce amount of time watching TV or a compute monitor, and improve the nutritional value of school lunches.

A Better Bean Burrito

Lisa Maloney recalls that when she started her job in West Contra Costa County a few years ago, she discovered her meals had competition from a neighborhood store. “One of my schools had an outside vendor coming in and selling authentic Mexican food to the students,” she said. “The kids were texting their orders and the restaurant would deliver to the front door of the school.”

She went to the principal and the school delivery was stopped.

The districts’ schools have closed campuses, and Maloney aims to capture as many customers as possible for the lunch program. “This is a revenue raising department,” she said. “We have to be raising as much as possible.” School districts contribute some money to the school nutrition service when the budget permits, but in lean times, that funding support is slashed, she explained.

Maloney, a nutritionist, supervises 10 schools and 10 different menus—including elementary, middle and high school breakfasts and lunches. Her department serves 16,000 lunches a day to students, 65 percent of whom qualify for the free or reduced cost. The full cost of a lunch, including an entrée, two sides and milk, is $2 for elementary students and $2.50 for middle and high schoolers. The sides include fresh fruit, fruit juice, lettuce and tomato cup and fruit juice bars. And for this, the department has an annual budget of $600,000 to spend just on food—about 80 cents to $1 per meal, says Barbara Jellison, director of the nutrition service.

The rest of the lunch sale price includes employee salaries, utilities, and transportation. Several trucks are employed driving prepared meals from the central kitchen in Richmond to schools around the county. The central kitchen does some scratch cooking and also prepares bagged lunches for schools that have no kitchen facilities to warm up hot meals. The total annual budget is $11 million.

Because the district participates in the federal school lunch program, it can only charge enough to cover costs. Jellison says they use a software program to create weekly menus that satisfy nutritional guidelines set by the USDA. No more than 30 percent of calories can come from fat and less than 10 percent from saturated fats. Lunches must provide one third of the recommended daily allowance of protein, vitamins, iron, calcium and calories.

Maloney sets the bar higher than federal guidelines anyway. She wants to completely eliminate three ingredients from their menus: hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup and isolated soy protein—a plant-based protein.

“I guess I should include sodium in there, too,” she said.

She has been trying out more vegetarian offerings and working on incorporating brown rice and more whole grains into menus, but the kids vote with their mouths. “It’s hard. If you want to raise the fiber content to 50 percent or more, it will be a dry product,” she said. “I’m not going to lie to you. We have chicken nuggets. Kids will eat them.” But she is pushing for prepared foods with lower sodium content by pressuring the vendors who sell to the district. “Manufacturers just want to sell their products. They’ll only change if we force them to,” Maloney said.

Recently, she said, her staff sampled a new bean and cheese burrito to include on the menu, and it tasted great when the sales rep offered it. But when they ordered some, the burritos weren’t as good, and had a high amount of isolated soy protein, the cheap filler that Maloney wants to eliminate.

“The manufacturer does a bait-and-switch. They bring in the Cadillac version of the burrito for us to sample,” she said. “So, we’re going with a different bean and cheese and beef burrito.”

Cooking from Scratch—for 21,000

Jennifer LeBarre took over as director of nutrition services for the Oakland public schools five years ago. She’d begun in 1998 and worked as a field supervisor, managing 25 sites. There were three central kitchens until budget cuts this year forced one to close. Now, there is one at Prescott Elementary and one at Oakland High. Some schools have no kitchens or cafeterias, and kids eat their lunch in multipurpose rooms. Some school kitchens have only ovens to re-heat prepared foods, while others do 80 percent of their cooking or assembly on site. She’s a proponent of scratch cooking as much as she can be, given limited resources.

In 2005, the federal lunch program encouraged school districts to design their own wellness policies, and Oakland took on the task in part, LeBarre said, because “we also started worrying about childhood obesity.”

Oakland school menus now feature Meatless Mondays, offering pasta primavera, vegetable stir-fry and bean and cheese burritos as alternatives. “We don’t emphasize what’s not there,” she said. “ We tell them, ‘you don’t need beef or pork or chicken to have a complete lunch.’” Brown rice is a regular feature, as is tofu. A vegan stroganoff fell flat with students, but she’s working with a vendor in Davis to concoct a quiche that kids will gobble down. She has a process for choosing new foods. “Can we afford it? Can we do it in our facilities? Does it meet wellness policy? And will students like it?” she said.

Like Lisa Maloney, LeBarre won’t jettison the tried and true lunchtime favorites, such as hot dogs and hamburgers. But she is also working to make the old favorites into healthier, leaner versions. So, Oakland students can choose turkey or chicken dogs, and the hamburgers served have more beef and less cheap soy filler. LeBarre says she’s looking at grass-fed beef as a lower fat alternative, if her budget allows it. And budget is the bottom line.

The federal reimbursement for low-income students barely covers the costs of serving nutritious meals, and because of the economy, for the first time in many years the district has seen the number of eligible students increase. In the last two years, 4 percent more students are eligible for free lunches, LeBarre said. “In the Bay Area, a lot of families can’t afford even the 40 cents for a reduced-cost lunch,” she said. “For a family of four, it becomes a road block.” In Oakland, the full-price lunch costs students $3 in middle and high school and $2.25 in elementary school.

Oakland has many schools in which 85 percent or more of students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches, so under the federal Provision 2 program, all students in the school eat for free. “There is a lot of talk at the national level about eliminating the ‘reduced’ category,” LeBarre said, which would mean allowing kids in that category to eat for free, too.

Like many school nutrition services directors at Bay Area schools, LeBarre is anticipating the arrival of new school lunch nutrition standards, which are part of new federal school lunch law.

The problem, said Phyllis Bramson, nutrition service director for the state education department, is that while the new guidelines are good, they are also more costly.

“The IOM [Insitiute of Medicine] said the cost of additional whole grains and fruits and vegetables would cost in the neighborhood of 20 cents per meal,” Bramson said. “Six cents is a wonderful carrot, but it’snot going to cover the additional cost.”

LeBarre said that 6 cents more adds up to about $230,000 extra in her budget, but she’ll need $1.3 million to serve lunches that meet the new standards. “There’s a disconnect between the cost and reimbursements,” she said. “If we were going to do food like Berkeley’s schools, we’d need $2.09 more per meal.”

Meanwhile, she is committed to experimenting with new foods, pushing the envelope of what Oakland students know and like. “We’re going to be doing taste testing with sushi,” LeBarre said. “We’ll try out California rolls and vegetarian rolls at Fremont High.”

This is the second in a series of articles on school lunch and nutrition. The articles were produced as a project for The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC’s Annenberg School for Communcation & Journalism. Next: In Piedmont and Orinda, when money is no object, healthy, tasty food is on the menu.

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