Healthier school meals pound out new message in Colorado
School districts across the country are adding healthier food in their lunchrooms, but one of the nation’s leaders in the trend is finding it’s a tough campaign to sustain if kids don’t eat the food.
Boulder Valley Schools in 2009 overhauled its food-services program to make it healthier fare, adding salad bars in every school, preparing hot lunches with natural ingredients and serving organic milk.
But the program, which was billed initially as revenue neutral, lost almost $700,000 in its first year despite a 25-cent increase in lunch prices — mostly because fewer kids signed up to eat than were expected.
The school district, with about 25,000 students, anticipated a 10 percent surge in participation with the new meals above the 26 percent participation but got only a 2 percent district-wide increase.
Participation varied from town to town.
For example, schools in Boulder and Louisville sold about 80,000 more meals during the year after they were made healthier, but students in Lafayette and Broomfield schools bought about 53,000 fewer.
Some in the district wonder if the drop is an indication of the economy in those towns.
“If you lost a job or spouse, you may pack lunches instead of buying them,” said Bill Sutter, interim chief financial officer for the school district.
Only 20 percent of the students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches in the district — a measure of poverty. And lunches cost $2.75 at the elementary level and $3 in middle school and high school.
The district is now pushing a marketing campaign to sell at least 750 more meals a day — or at least 30 per school.
Schools will have daily tastings to preview the next day’s meals, radio and print advertisements will tout the program and sports celebrities will make visits to cafeterias to urge kids to buy the lunches.
The district will pay for the campaign through grants and fundraising.
This year the district also eliminated its a la carte meals, reduced its nutrition staff and consolidated its preparation kitchens to six sites instead of 22.
On a recent day, students at Arapahoe Campus High School lined up for the salad bar.
“It’s gotten better, having fruit and a salad bar,” said Devin Harrison, a 17-year-old senior. But she had brought her lunch that day.
“This is our great challenge,” said Sylvia Tawse, a Boulder parent who founded a marketing firm that promotes the organic food industry. “I fully believe in the power of education. We have been feeding our kids into sickness. I think as (parents) start to absorb how bad it is for kids, I would hope they at least would say, ‘I will buy lunch every other day.’ ”
Tawse was on the parent group that worked to bring Ann Cooper to Boulder as the director of nutrition services.
Cooper, known as the Renegade Lunch Lady, is a chef who once cooked for the Grateful Dead, led nutrition services for the Berkeley, Calif., school district and is working with Whole Foods to donate salad bars to schools across the country.
Cooper, before being hired as Boulder’s nutrition director, wrote a review of the district’s lunchrooms, saying they resembled 7-Eleven stores and served “industrially grown and processed foods.”
Schools now have salad bars, hot lunches are prepared from scratch with natural ingredients, students drink organic milk and flavored milk is banned. Foods with added trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, additives and dyes have been eliminated. Fruits, vegetables, and meals with whole grains are served daily.
Cooper sent an e-mail to parents last week, urging volunteers to help push the district’s School Food Project.
“Change is hard for everybody,” Cooper said. “But we’ll get the numbers. We’re in a time where people really care about what they eat.”
-Jeremy P. Meyer