School Lunches Get a Healthy Makeover

With new nutrition standards New Jersey schools are making mystery meat a thing of the past.

SALAD DAYS: At Maschio’s Food Service in Flanders, a salad is made with locally grown greens. Maschio’s provides local produce to schools in Warren, Sussex, and Hunterdon counties.
Photo by Pete Byron

Julia Cameron noticed the changes almost immediately. When the Bergen County Academy student walked into her school cafeteria last September, not only was the décor different—posters featuring actors and singers promoting the healthiness of milk, colorful signs listing daily nutritional needs—the food itself was different.

“Everything was smaller,” says Cameron, 18, of Wood-Ridge. “There was no soda. They’d cut back on fried foods and ice cream and basically anything with sugar. They started offering sandwiches and healthier items. At first, people were a little annoyed by it.”

It’s a new millennium, even in the school lunch line. Gone is the stereotypical lady in the hairnet, dumping glop on plastic trays. She has been replaced by self-serve salad bars, deli stations, and restaurant-ready entrées, like tofu over noodles in peanut sauce, eggplant rollatini, and couscous salad.

“In the past there were loosely interpreted meal standards. Schools were serving sodas, whole milks, things like that,” says Elizabeth Jemmotte, R.D., the Mid-Atlantic regional dietician for Chartwells, a British-owned food service company that provides meals for more than 50 New Jersey school districts. “Now we’re focused on whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and finding ways to keep kids active throughout the day.”

In part, the change in meal quality is in response to national guidelines, but New Jersey schools also are pushed by the Model School Nutrition Policy issued by the state Department of Agriculture. Put into effect at the start of the 2007-08 school year, the sweeping program limits fat and sugar content in à la carte items, including those sold in school stores, in vending machines, and during fundraisers.

The policy helped the state earn a B in a state School Foods Report Card issued last year by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. New Jersey placed ninth nationwide. By comparison, New York received a D+, Connecticut a B-, and Pennsylvania an F.

“New Jersey is doing more than most states,” says CSPI nutrition policy director Margo Wootan. “There’s still work to do to improve the nutritional quality of its offerings but most states haven’t issued any statewide standards so it’s terrific that New Jersey has.”

The state policy, combined with federal guidelines and further awareness of childhood obesity and other health concerns, means soda is a no-no, and fruit juices must be 100-percent juice and be offered in smaller sizes. The deep fryer, the old stand-by that churned out french fries and chicken nuggets? Gone from most places; in fact, some school districts say they did away with fryers years ago. Instead, most fries are not fried at all; they are baked and spiked with Cajun spices and other flavorings to make them more enticing. The chicken nuggets are also baked—and are likely to have whole-grain breading.

Pizza is still around, but the crust is often whole grain, and the cheese is probably made partly from skim milk. Tacos? If they still use beef, it is a leaner cut, or the meat has been mixed with turkey or beans. Candy of any sort, even gummy fruit snacks, cannot be sold during the school day. Whole milk, once de rigueur, is now limited to 8 ounces a day; instead, schools encourage milk with 2-percent fat or less in any size.

The innovations go on and on, from blending soy into peanut butter to mixing brown rice into white to subtly raise fiber content. During the 2008-09 school year, Randolph Township high school students may see sushi among the lunchtime offerings, says Theresa Watson, food services director of the district-run food program. (Some districts outsource their lunch programs to providers like Chartwells; others prepare meals internally.)

On an average school day, about 642,000 New Jersey students—or about 46 percent of the 1.4-million student population—get their midday meal from their school cafeteria, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Students did not all just happily give up their daily regimen of cookies and potato chips, two more things modified under the guidelines. (In many cases, cookies, once sold in packs of three, now come singly, and are baked with less sugar. Chips and other similar snacks are now sold in baked versions.)

“Students were really upset by it,” Watson says. “Nobody likes to be told what they can or cannot eat.”
Alex Zhao, a senior at Randolph High School last year, says the first difference he and his friends noticed in the cafeteria offerings was what was missing: french fries. “That was the biggest thing,” he says.
Zhao kept purchasing his lunch, taking “whatever the main entrée was,” and not paying much attention to whether it contained whole grains or less fat or any other kind of healthy choices. Chicken, he says, seemed like a more common option than before.

Toward the end of the school year, Zhao noticed—and began enjoying—the numerous pre-made salad options. “People noticed I was eating salads and wondered where I got them, and when I said the cafeteria, they were kind of surprised,” he says.

Initial reaction to the baked chips and low-fat cookies was poor. Sales dropped, Watson says. “It took a full school year and tons of communication to turn the students around.” During that time, Watson noticed a shift in sales from à la carte items to complete meals, which include at least two ounces of protein, two to three servings of grains, ¾ cup of vegetables and fruit, and eight ounces of low-fat milk. “Students started to look at what value they were getting for their dollar,” Watson says. “They chose the complete meal over junk food.”

In Cherry Hill, food service director Dana Gollotto was braced for the worst. “I was afraid there were going to be much more complaints,” says Gollotto, who also is an employee of Aramark, the Philadelphia-based food giant that provides meals to more than 20 New Jersey school districts. “I thought it was going to be, ‘Where’re my Pop Tarts? Where’re my candy bars?’”

To make the transition easier, the cafeteria had to become a classroom. Gollotto and other nutrition experts talked to the students about the state’s wellness policy long before it was implemented, so they did not come to school and suddenly find themselves forced to nibble on nuts and berries.

The nutritionists also talked to parent groups, especially at the elementary school level, to emphasize the healthiest ways to pack a lunch. For example, leave out sugary snacks and drinks. For special occasions, the experts urged alternatives such as fruit, muffins, popcorn, and pretzels to the traditional birthday cupcakes.

“A lot of the parents have gotten creative with fruit kebabs and things that have supported the wellness policy,” Gollotto says. “We had some staunch support from parents who felt this was a long time coming.”
At the high school level, Cherry Hill also is trying to make the atmosphere more appealing. The cafeteria with the benches and tables that fold against the walls are gone. Now students at Cherry Hill East dine in the U.B.U. Lounge, a colorful Aramark-designed room with couches, small private tables, and healthy eating messages on the walls.

“What students want most is to socialize with friends at lunch,” Gollotto says. “They want to get their food quick, so there are a lot of grab-and-go options.” These include pre-made salads and sandwiches.
In the South Orange/Maplewood School District—where efforts to improve school lunch predated the statewide mandate—food service director Pat Johnson early on realized it was not enough to hand out apples to her elementary schoolers and consider the day a nutritional success.

“The garbage would be filled with apples,” says Johnson, whose district is one of 66 in New Jersey serviced by Pomptonian, based in Fairfield. “We didn’t make it enticing to them.” So she turned it into a game, putting different apple varieties in baskets around the cafeteria and letting students choose. The apples came with handouts to complete and submit for prize drawings. Winners of the random drawings would get stuffed animals, pencil cases, and other novelties. Of course, there was no way to actually get the kids to eat the whole apple. “As long as they took a bite of it, that’s all we were asking,” Johnson says. “You had to start somewhere.”

The more the school offered fruits and vegetables, the more the students accepted, she says. Now the district offers free vegetables like carrots, celery, cucumbers, and broccoli on a daily basis.  “They’ll pick up a celery stick and run off and be with their friends,” Johnson says. “They don’t see snack items”—the school only stocks 100-calorie packs or baked chips—“all they see are fruits and vegetables every single day. They look at the fruits and vegetables differently.”

To keep teenagers interested, Pomptonian brings in an oversized pasta machine on special days to show how semolina flour becomes spaghetti, and offers an annual outdoor barbecue, says Rich Ward, the company’s director of operations. “Older kids are a little harder to impress,” he adds.

While developing new menu items, Chartwells offered tastings: a taco salad made with turkey, and pizza samplings with both whole grain and whole-wheat crust. “We’re trying to get them used to it,” Jemmotte says. “They’re still their favorite foods, just slightly repackaged.”

Maschio’s Food Services, based in Flanders, has a unique Farms-to-Schools program that brings produce “from the field to the school with not a lot in between,” says Joanne Untamo, director of operations at the company, which services fifteen New Jersey counties. “We’ve always promoted fresh fruits and vegetables and this is an extension of that philosophy.”

About fifteen schools participate in the program. The fruits and vegetables are labeled local to promote student interest in the farms in their backyards. It’s an idea ahead of its time: State officials plan to push a locally grown campaign this school year.

“The more exposure we give the children to these kinds of foods, the greater likelihood they’re going to try them,” Untamo says. “They get repeated exposure to the healthier thing and they begin to prefer it.”
Indeed, it’s amazing to hear the recipes today’s students are eating and enjoying.

In Randolph, Watson talks about a Teriyaki veggie burger popular with grades kindergarten through 12. In Washington Township, Gloucester County, food and nutrition director Ginny Bowden says her students eagerly dine on salads made with broccoli and raisins. “Our main mission is to provide healthy meals to kids, but we’re also helping them get an education,” Bowden says. “We’re part of the school, and we should be teaching kids how to eat and how to snack.”

With food costs rising, districts must work harder to keep meals appetizing, nutritious, and affordable. The issue worries Emma Davis-Kovacs, the Department of Agriculture’s director of the division of food and nutrition. “Clearly we have a challenge this year,” she says. “Every state in the country is dealing with this.”

The state’s responsibility includes assuring compliance with the new nutrition policy. Lynne Richmond, public information officer for the agriculture department, explains, “We do on-site monitoring of the schools once every five years, at a minimum. However, every year we require districts to certify that they are implementing the policy as a part of their annual application process to participate in the school nutrition programs.” She adds, “Most districts seem to be complying without much difficulty.”

Of New Jersey’s 642,304 daily lunchtime diners, about 48 percent receive a free or reduced price meal. Currently, 580 public and charter schools participate in the National School Lunch Program, which provides financial and food subsidies and sets caps on prices. This school year, the maximum lunch charge is $3.25 for high schools, $3 for middle schools, and $2.75 for elementary schools. The prices represent an increase of 40 cents over last year. (Each school in the national program sets its own prices, up to the maximum.)

Some large food service companies think their buying power will help them ride out rising food costs. Aramark and Chartwells, for example, say they expect their prices will remain the same. Locally owned Maschio’s says cost increases in its districts should be minimal.

“Administrators are reluctant to raise prices,” Untamo says. “They don’t want to lose kids from the lunch program.” Johnson of South Orange/Maplewood says her district already charges the maximum allowable price because its population can handle it. Although she worries about fuel costs cutting into the district food budget, she considers herself lucky. “I’m able to shop a little better,” she says. “I can’t imagine if I was serving with half the price. I couldn’t offer what I’m offering.”

Smaller districts face greater challenges. In Washington Township, the food program is run by the school board and struggles to be self-sufficient. Looking at bids and comparing prices from years past, Bowden rattles off some figures: Soft pretzels, which used to cost less than 20 cents to make, now cost closer to 30 cents. Her bagel supplier has nearly doubled his price per dozen to $5.

“I don’t want to compromise,” she says. “I don’t want to use a cheaper or less nutritious product even though a loaf of whole grain is going to cost me more than that sticky white bread.” To compensate, she’s cutting back internally: not replacing employees who retire and reducing labor costs by making less food from scratch (instead purchasing pre-made items with healthier ingredients).

“I’m charging the maximum I can, and that might not even be enough,” Bowden says. “I feel very bad about that. Anyone who has three or four kids in the district, I don’t know how that’s going to impact them.”
Bowden will keep pushing because she knows the food savvy students acquire now will last a lifetime.
If she has any doubts, she need only ask Cameron, now a freshman at Villanova University. For her and her classmates, she says, the hardest part of adjusting to the new state guidelines last year, was giving up sweetened  drinks and soda. But by the end of the year, they were acclimated. “The length of the lunch line was the same as it was the year before. People adjusted. I don’t think it turned anybody off.”

In fact, she says, it may have changed them more than they realized. “One day, a teacher brought donuts and Munchkins and barely anybody ate them,” she says. “Everybody seems to have started to think about how they eat a little more.”

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