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Healthier school meals pound out new message in Colorado

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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

Mile High Mamas
Author: Mile High Mamas

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  • comment avatar Sid September 12, 2010

    This is something that no one could have anticipated.

    No one in government anyway.

    Ever wonder why we have increasingly larger budget shortfalls and deficits? Or why reason is always blamed on taxes being too low?

    Back in my day, most kids brought their own lunch from home, prepared by out mothers. I guess parents nowadays seem to think the school is better at it, or simply don’t want to put out the effort to do so.

  • comment avatar KarenTeacher September 12, 2010

    The concern seems to be, at least in part, that students are not buying school lunches, but are, indeed, bringing their own lunches, packed, one assumes, either by themselves or their parents – so I fail to understand your comment about parents not packing lunches.

    There are other issues as well, in this and other districts. School lunches used to be much better – and then budgets started to be cut, and many school districts stopped subsidizing school cafeterias, instead expecting that cafeterias become completely self-supporting, including paying the salaries of their own staffs. This lead, in part, to the introduction of more packaged foods – an attempt to balance the cost of labor, which increases as more preparation time is required, and the cost of materials with the income generated by students’ lunch purchases and any government funding provided to students who qualify for free or reduced lunch – which is only collected if the students actually eat lunch, meaning the cafeteria must serve food the students are willing to eat. This latter concern has lead, in my observation at the school at which I’ve taught for 14 years, to a reduction in the amount of packaged foods and a return to more foods prepared from scratch, because it increases the number of students willing to eat the school lunch, and therefore increases the cafeteria’s income, balancing out the increased cost of labor required for preparation.

  • comment avatar sAMMY568 September 12, 2010

    When you raise kids on chicken nuggets, pizza and Mountain Dew, is it any wonder why they balk at healthier choices? I give kudos to the school districts for trying. It might take a while for the kids to get used to healthier fare, but the optimistic side of me likes to think that this will be the norm one day and not a news story.

  • comment avatar Max39 September 12, 2010

    When they started this in Broomfield, my kids stopped buying lunch. They now bring lunch just about every day. This is their first taste of an Authoritarian Government telling them what they can eat and I am heartened to see them firmly reject it.

    We eat healthy, My kids have never had anything but organic milk, but they say the milk served in school tastes bad. I agree, and so do the kids, that processed foods can be unhealthy. But what the school system is not acknowledging is that they have failed to create healthy menu items that the kids will eat. There is simply no excuse for this — because it is so easy.

    By the way, as a bvsd parent, I recently got an email stating that they need an additional 30 kids in each school to buy lunch for it to remain sustainable. So this program is obviously a miserable failure. Really, all of these folks should be fired for screwing up such a simple task: Make a healthy lunch that kids will eat.

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