School lunch a step up from yesteryear; challenge remains to be nutritious, palatable

Fruits and vegetables to choose from at lunchtime at Coyote Springs Elementary School in Prescott Valley. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

Fruits and vegetables to choose from at lunchtime at Coyote Springs Elementary School in Prescott Valley. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

What’s for lunch?

In our area school districts, the answer can be anything from homemade lasagna to a grilled chicken Panini or a salad bar with produce that matches the alphabet.

The days of inedible strained peas and mystery meat have been replaced with efforts to offer as many fresh ingredients as possible, particularly when it comes to fruits and vegetables. Salad bars are not only a staple in most schools today, but are popular even with those who might not like the daily entrée.

The three local districts – Chino Valley Unified, Humboldt Unified, and Prescott Unified – try and offer their students distinct offerings that share one common denominator: their foods meet the federal nutrition guidelines that call for whole grain breads and flour, limited sodium and as much fresh fruit and vegetables as possible. Protein, dairy and 100 percent fruit juices are also part of the package.


Second graders choose their meal during lunch at Coyote Springs Elementary School in Prescott Valley. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

The districts’ self-sustaining food programs cost between just over $1 million to under $2 million.

Humboldt is the only one of the three districts that does not contract with an outside food vendor and it has the highest percentage of students buying lunch; some 60 percent versus 39 percent for Chino Valley. All of the district schools offer free and reduced lunch options.

Costs vary slightly between the districts – between $2.25 and $2.75 – but each one is committed to ensuring every child has access to a healthy, daily meal regardless of their ability to pay.

If a child does not have enough money for lunch, the districts work to rectify that discreetly so that children are not embarrassed or without food.

In Humboldt, students get a hot meal until other arrangements are made, even if that means use of the district’s charitable funds. In Prescott and Chino Valley, students are allowed up to three days of free meals before they are offered an alternative meal that would include at least a sandwich, fruit and milk. Parents are notified before accounts go into arrears, and free and reduced lunch options are always available for those who cannot afford the cost, staff said.

“No child ever goes hungry, ever,” assured Amy Seigler, the general manager for Prescott’s contractor, Southwest Food Services.

Humboldt parent of two elementary-age children, Megan Smith, said she is not sure her son and daughter think every meal is a winner – some days they opt to bring their lunch – but she likes their exposure to fresh fruits and vegetables and the efforts the staff give to offering nutritious food. She appreciates that the cafeteria staff do their best to balance nutrition with personal taste.

One day this past week they had the option of baked chicken and breadsticks or a bean and cheese burrito.

“I see they all put their heart and soul into their jobs. They know the students, and to me, anyone who knows my child is a winner,” Smith said.

Prescott High senior Kody Jones, who grew up in the district, said he thinks the school lunch program is better than what many might think. At the high school, students have a range of options not unlike what they might be able to pick up at a local cafeteria – paninis, burgers, pizza, deli food, and assorted salads.

One dish that is a favorite in all Prescott schools is the Thursday “chicken snow bowl,” a combination of popcorn chicken, mashed potatoes, corn and gravy, Seigler said. The recipe is a healthy modification of a dish one can buy at Kentucky Fried Chicken, she said.

“They give you tons of options,” Jones agreed.

In Chino Valley, veteran food service specialist Jinny Harner said the biggest challenge districts face is to offer tasty, palatable choices with healthy ingredients that may be contrary to children’s regular diet.

The most onerous of the federal requirements relates to serving only whole grains and low-sodium products, a stipulation now under review, she noted.

School systems across the nation have complained the rigidity of the federal health guidelines has prompted more meals ending up in the garbage can.

“We definitely have to be creative,” said Harner of her district that contracts with Sodexo.

One example is a weekly offering of a Pizza Hut whole-grain crust with low-fat pepperoni and low-fat cheese at the middle and high school.

“It doesn’t taste quite as yummy as regular Pizza Hut pizza, but it’s still Pizza Hut pizza,” Harner said.

Humboldt Nutritionist Pamela Liuzzo said the focus is to take the foods staff know children like – cheeseburgers, pizza, nachos, tacos – and “put a healthy spin on it.”

Liuzzo’s nutrition lessons piggyback on the food service program such that students actually ask for such things as jicama or kale chips, said Tami Hitt-Wyant, the food services director.

All of the districts’ food staff said the key ingredient for them is simple: offer healthy meals at an affordable price that satisfies the palate and feeds the brain.

“We can’t make everybody happy, but we do our darn best,” Hitt-Wyant concluded.

Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2041.