<I>WHAT'S FOR LUNCH?</I><BR>Balanced meals are available, if kids will choose them<BR>
What's different today isn't so much what's for lunch; it's in the proportions of the various food groups and in the options kids have today. And for HUSD, there's a difference in freshness.
Years ago the school district used to prepare food at a single location and then truck it over to the other campuses. Today every campus has its own kitchen.
"The food is a lot fresher because it's not prepared in the morning and kept in warmers before shipping to other schools," Littell said. "Now it's cooked closer to meal time." In fact, cooks routinely make fresh pizzas from scratch all through the lunch period, which runs from about 10:45 to about 1 p.m.; individual principals determine the lunch periods for their campuses, Littell said.
Littell said the food comes from the US Department of Agriculture's commodities program, which provides food for schools at lower-than-wholesale prices. The National School Lunch Program requires school lunches to meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but schools are free to decide what specific foods they will serve. The program reimburses schools for their cost of providing approved lunches.
To ensure children are being offered balanced meals the program gives schools the option of complying with one of four methods: food base, enhanced food base, nutritional analysis and assisted nutritional analysis.
The food base option identifies five nutrition components that lunches must provide - grains, fruits, vegetables, protein and milk. The enhanced food base increases the amounts of grain offerings. The nutritional analysis uses a software program to closely analyze the component offerings of every meal. In the assisted analysis schools pay an expert - often hired as a full time employee - to conduct the analysis.
HUSD uses the enhanced food base option. "Increasing the grains was a big government push a few years ago; it helps to provide more fiber," Littell said. But the district also examines its offerings. "We don't analyze all the meals but we do analyze some to find out where we're at," Littell said. Also, he said, the federal government audits the district every five years to ensure compliance with the National School Lunch Program.
Freedom Of Choice
District schools today operate under an "offer versus serve" structure. "We give kids a choice of what they want, rather than just plop something onto their plates," Littell said. "We find that if they have choices, they are more likely to eat it."
Students can choose three of the five nutrition components the federal rules require the schools to provide. "The other two are optional, but we encourage them to take fruits and vegetables," Littell said. That encouragement comes in the form of offering ranch dressing for dipping fresh vegetables, and a choice of fresh or canned fruits.
Students at all HUSD schools get a choice of five entrees every day. Four of the entrees - hamburgers, pizza, sandwiches and chef salad - are daily offerings. A fifth entrée moves on a revolving schedule, to reappear about every six weeks. Those entrees include chicken nuggets, turkey pot pies and spaghetti.
But, even with so many healthy options, Littell acknowledged that it remains up to the individual student to choose a balanced diet, to eat a salad with that slice of pepperoni pizza.
"It comes down to personal choice in the end," he said.
"That is the $64 question," HUSD Superintendent Dr. Henry Schmitt said. "My hope would be that we, as parents, are providing our children with balanced breakfasts and suppers. There has to be parental participation."
Free & Reduced lunches are either free or 40 cents, depending on the child's qualification. Lunches for K-5 children cost $1.50. Middle school lunches are $1.65, and increase to $2.35 at the high school.
HUSD schools also offer breakfasts of French toast, cinnamon rolls, biscuits & gravy, ham & cheese muffins or breakfast burritos. Costs vary from 30 cents to $1.35.
Littell said that federal rules prohibit the school district from making a profit from the lunch program, although it can keep a reserve fund for expenses. "That money has to go back into the program," he said. The district is allowed to use some of that money for "indirect costs" such as utilities, clean-up and trash service, he said.
From 40 to 50 percent of the lunch fees taken in by the schools go toward paying the labor costs associated with making the lunches available. The HUSD Food Services department employs about 40 people to serve the district's eight schools, with substitutes standing by to fill in for temporary absences.
"It works out to about 15 or 16 meals per labor hour," Littell said.
The new high school, called the East Campus, does not provide lunches because there are no full-time students on the campus yet. Later in the school year a Culinary Arts class will use the East Campus kitchen.
The National School Lunch Program allows the sale of fruit juices and some specific carbonated beverages containing fruit juice, but prohibits serving sodas during lunch, Littell said.
"The federal requirement is that sodas can't be offered in the same place where reimbursable lunches are sold," he said.
The soda machines at the high school are equipped with timers that shut them off during lunch periods. "But power outages sometimes throws the timers off," Littell said.
The program also allows the sale of some specific packaged fruit snacks such as "Fruit Roll-Ups" and "Scooby Doo Fruit Snacks." But sodas and candy are not permitted because "they are considered a food of non-nutritional value," Littell said.
...OR BANNING IT
According to a recent Associated Press article quoting Arizona Action for Healthy Kids statistics, about 13 percent of schoolchildren are obese and 15 percent are overweight. To help fight childhood obesity the Arizona Board of Education is considering a proposal to completely ban from schools all foods of "no nutritional value." But the proposal is getting some opposition from school officials who believe that school organizations will lose money from concession sales if it becomes law.
"It's a tough issue," Littell said.
"Because of the general lack of health among our young people I believe we have to do something, even at the expense of considerable income," Superintendent Schmitt said. "But we can't monitor for 'zero tolerance.'"
Schmitt said concessions, such as soda machines, can represent as much as a half million dollars' income for a school over the long term. Some obligation for providing healthy alternatives must rest with the vendors, he said.
"They are very capable of putting nutritional food in vending machines," he said.
Littell said he is always looking for new and novel ways to encourage students to eat healthy.
For example, the school district is presently working with an Arizona Dairy Council pilot project that places milk vending machines in the high school and middle schools. The machines dispense plastic bottles of milk in several flavors, including chocolate, sugarless chocolate, strawberry and mocha.
"At the end of the year we get to keep the machines," Littell said.