As you round the corner toward the open entry of the Mellon Middle School cafeteria, you would never know by listening that several hundred seventh-graders are in there. They all sit at their tables, chatting at calming volumes, talking with their hands. And while one table of girls overflows with Vera Bradley-designed lunch bags stuffed with meals packed at home, a good many tables are full of white cafeteria lunch trays. The trays are empty, and most morsels have long been devoured.
From a few steps away, the cafeteria resembles the food court at the mall. The kids are eating pizza, corn dogs and chicken tenders, tossing back bottles of Naked Juice drink and munching on Rice Krispies treats. But go behind the food line and the truth appears. They’re eating Domino’s Smart Slice pizzas with whole grain crusts, lean meat toppings, low sodium sauce and light cheese. The corn dogs and chicken tenders? Also cloaked in whole grains. The juice containers are not the hulking sugar-soaked ones found at 7-Eleven. These are eight ounces at most. And the Krispies? Whole grain, again.
On the line, workers hand-slice fruit and restock garden salads and yogurt parfaits in preparation for the eighth-graders who will descend on them next.
On a side table, lemon slices float in elegant decanters of ice water, and students periodically jump up to fill their cups. Food services director Tazeen Chowdhury, who has overseen the district’s program for 14 years, nods in approval, glad that her efforts to encourage more water consumption are working. “This is an issue of taking care of the next generation,” she says.
Chowdhury has been here during a time of great change in school lunches, with ever-increasing government restrictions on what she can serve and food prices that continue to rise. The district had been participating in the National School Lunch Program but dropped out. It was costing too much; the students didn’t like the food and threw much of it away, says Janice Klein, the district’s business director, so the district decided it could run the lunch program more efficiently on its own.
But when the program was revamped and third party ranking organizations, such as U.S. News & World Report, decided to use school districts’ participation in part to help determine academic ratings, Mt. Lebanon re-joined in 2008. The federal program subsidizes schools through funding and food products from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since the program began in 1946, it has served more than 224 billion lunches. In 2012, the program served more than 31.6 million kids at a cost of $11.6 billion.
Participating districts are required to provide meals that meet strict standards. Serving size, fat amount and type and sodium all are regulated. Fruits and vegetables must be included. Protein counts and starches are accounted for, and everything is factored for age, with specific guidelines for K through 5, 6 to 8 and 9 to 12.
Regulations don’t just cover the cafeteria meals. They govern what the school can serve anytime, including at special events, school fund-raisers such as candy sales and even what can be sold in vending machines. (Thanks to the Smart Snacks in School regulation, school treats all over the country have morphed from Oreos, fruit candy, doughnuts, chocolate bars and regular colas to peanuts, light popcorn, low-fat tortilla chips, granola bars, fruit and no-calorie flavored water.)
Children from families who qualify for free or reduced-cost meals based on income—this year’s qualifying income is $44,123 for a family of four—eat for free or pay 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch, depending on their financial situations. Other children also are eligible, such as foster children and kids in other special circumstances. In Mt. Lebanon, 10.45 percent of children qualify. The rest of the children may purchase meals at the regular price, ranging from $2.10 at the elementary schools to between $2.35 and $3.50 at the middle and high schools, depending on the entrée selected. A la carte choices also are available.
The lunch program receives no local tax money; the meal charges and subsidies make it self-supporting. Mt. Lebanon’s annual budget for food service is about $1.7 million. A little less than a half-million dollars in revenue comes from the students, and the rest comes from subsidies, says Klein. Any money left in the fund balance goes to pay for new kitchen equipment.
A nice perk for busy families has been added in recent years. Breakfast is available in the middle schools and high school for $1.50.
In Mt. Lebanon, about 40 percent of the students purchase their lunch. The program also makes it easy to buy. Menus are posted online so students know what’s available and can decide whether to pack or buy. Each student has an online account, which means no one knows who’s getting the free lunches. Parents who pay can replenish their children’s accounts with a credit card. The students then have an ID number on their school-issued ID card, allowing the cashier to charge the proper account.
“Our goal is to provide healthy food and influence healthy eating habits,” Chowdhury says, noting the cafeteria is really an extension of the classroom, where children are expected to learn. Of course, all this means nothing if the children don’t eat the food. Chowdhury has a “very unscientific” way of learning what they’re eating: “Checking the trash can.”
To make sure the healthy food goes down the hatch and not the disposal, she has followed taste trends and prepared foods fresh. Spice is in, as is anything Mexican. Students also like to see their food made in front of them, like they do at Subway or Chipotle, with the ability to customize as it is prepared.
For decades, Mt. Lebanon’s elementary schools, which have no cafeterias, encouraged children to go home for lunch or to brown bag it, but five years ago, food service began offering hot or cold lunches made in the secondary school cafeterias and transported to the elementary schools, where they’re stored each day in heaters and coolers in the multi-purpose rooms where the children eat. Key to that program’s success is the free unlimited fruits and vegetables provided with the meals, Chowdhury says.
At the elementary schools, she introduced new healthy meals and hoped those habits would stick with the children as they grew. Watching the middle schoolers eat, suggests her strategy has worked. “Kids are wiping out the salad bar,” she says. Chowdhury also launched a Farm to School program, which purchases locally grown fruits and vegetables and prepares them using delicious recipes. (She hands a writer a bowl of savory cinnamon roasted butternut squash as she talks.) Try the recipes yourself!
If the parents support similar healthy eating habits at home, the school program has a much more far-reaching effect, she says. Changing eating habits, “has to be a community effort,” she says.
Every day at the elementary schools, food service offers one hot item, two deli items (one of which is always a meatless bagel and yogurt), as well as a garden salad, milk and fruits and veggies. Teachers take student orders in homeroom each morning and send the totals to food service by computer. The most popular item on the menu? Popcorn chicken, by a landslide.
First and second graders are prime for learning good habits, so that’s where the district concentrates its classroom-to-cafeteria connection, teaching them about food groups and smart choices. “When they see ratatouille, they know ‘Oh, that’s eggplant,’” Chowdhury says.
Middle schools have are large production kitchens and can offer a menu with 12 different entrée choices. The hottest item, literally, is anything with hot sauce, especially the spicy chicken sandwich and boneless buffalo chicken wings.
For years, the high school has had three cafeterias, which is challenging for the kitchen staff, but when the renovation is completed next year, everyone will eat in the same place with meals prepared in a small, efficient kitchen overseen by new executive chef Michael Kelley, who formerly worked with Chatham University and Eat’n Park’s Parkhurst Dining. It will operate much like a food court, with a panini press station, made-to-order wraps, pizza, a burrito bar and an Asian bar.
Chowdhury is always on the lookout for providers of food that tastes great but still conforms to the program. That’s not always easy. As of yet, she hasn’t found a whole-grain chocolate chip cookie worth anything. And the restrictive sodium guidelines, which are being phased in over the years, are difficult to meet.
Families whose children are on restricted diets are encouraged to bring lunch. Although the district does not serve peanut products of any kind (with the exception of sealed peanut butter and jelly Uncrustables), it also does not feature gluten free foods, because the liability is too great in case of failure.
Desserts are limited to some cookies and fruit. And just because federal guidelines say a school may have an item, that doesn’t mean it will be on the menu. Even though it’s allowed, Chowdhury can’t bring herself to serve Coke Zero. “I’m not going to compromise my program,” she vows.
Tazeen Chowdhury was born in Bangladesh and earned her degree in dietetics from Indiana University of Pa. Among her recent honors were attending The Pew Charitable trust sponsored trip to Washington DC to speak to senators on Captol Hill about healthy school meals. The Pennsylvania Department of Education selected her to attend USDA Produce Safety University as produce consumption has tripled. She received a letter of accolade from the Office of the First lady for receiving seven awards (one for each Mt. Lebanon elementary school) for The Healthier US School Lunch Challenge and she participated in a U.S. child nutrition delegation to China to help the Chinese government develop their own national school lunch program.
Chowdhury is a member of many professional organizations including The Alliance K-12 Director Network, a think-tank of the foodservice directors from across the nation.