Parents, students speak out for school menu changes
URBANA – Ask a cafeteria table of eighth-graders what they think about school lunch and you won't have to wait long – or even until the end of the question – for a plateful of answers.
Morgan Applebee thinks that school lunch is "gross."
"I've found hair in it before. I've found plastic," she said. "The fries sometimes would be half-cooked."
Her friend Gabby Parsons said she's tired of pizza. "You can hold it up and sometimes it'll drip grease," she said. "Some days it'll be really good. Some days it'll be bad.
"I started taking my lunch. It was just easier."
Kalie Kirby would like to see bananas and peaches. McKenzie Kirby thinks a salad bar and "actual sandwiches" would help and, as a table, they rank school lunches a four or five on a one to 10 scale, 10 being ideal.
They're not the only ones who see room for improvement.
Several Urbana parents would like to see substitutions for some of the doughnuts and beefy cheese nachos. "Let's lower the sugar content and increase the whole grain," said Thomas Paine Elementary School parent Tracy Heilman.
Students ask for more variety in their meals, less grease, more sandwiches and fresh fruit and meals that don't taste or look "institutionalized," as Urbana High School senior Rodney Rockwell put it. Some middle schoolers would also like a short recess to digest and to have nutrition taught in class.
Meanwhile, ARAMARK School Support Services, the contractor hired by the Urbana school district to provide about 3,000 meals a day, has its own order to fill.
It must meet state and federal school meal requirements and nutritional guidelines, like packing canned fruit in fruit juice instead of a sugary concentrate, said Piper Harvey, who heads up ARAMARK's work in the district. Menus are supervised by a dietitian and can be audited by the government. A failing audit could result in the withdrawal of some funding.
"There's checks and balances," she said of maintaining the food's nutritional requirements.
"We also have to be considerate about trends," Harvey said. "The kids tell us, we also watch how the participation is doing." She added that menus also sometimes cater to children's individual needs. "We have schools that are peanut-free."
Harvey said that students who get a reimbursable lunch – like a free or reduced price meal – through the program must pick up three of five components to make up a balanced meal: protein, starch, fruit, vegetable and milk, with a few options on some of the choices.
"They have to have three components," Harvey said.
On Wednesday, that meal could translate to scoops of macaroni and cheese and cooked green beans, a wheat roll and a pint of 1 percent milk to drink, served on a compartmentalized styrofoam tray.
At the middle school, lunch for an adult costs $2. A full-price student lunch is $1.60, with a reduced price set at 40 cents, according to the district contract with ARAMARK.
Of parents and students interviewed, all said the cost was reasonable.
"We try to keep the amount that we charge as low as we can," said school board member Steve Summers.
Summers said he'd be interested in looking into the district paying more for higher-quality food.
"By marginally raising the price that we actually charge ... if we can get improved choices, I would be willing to look at," he said. However, Summers – the part-owner of a restaurant – cautioned that switching from canned or frozen to fresh vegetables in for all recipes could be "exponentially expensive," he said.
"We have to be cognizant of what kids can afford, and what the district can afford," he said.
But prices aside, several of the eighth-graders who ate the meal left food on their plate uneaten.
"Some people don't eat lunch," Parsons said.
"They'll get like a cookie or something," Kalie Kirby added.
At a Nov. 21 school board meeting, representatives from Thomas Paine Elementary School PTA asked the board to address several issues they had with school food and the serving of it, including changing menus from school to school and that some children have difficulty balancing all their food on a disposable tray in one trip.
Heilman said it's not that she wants ARAMARK out of the district, but that she wants healthier choices that give the children energy for the entire day.
At Urbana High School, parent Susan Solomon has also been helping lead a Parent Teacher Student Association discussion to alter the meal plans. "Our greatest criticism ... is that when we look at the menu, it's absolutely saturated with carbs," she said. "It's hot dogs one day, it's nachos one day."
She'd like meals with fewer carbohydrates and sugars and more proteins and diet options, as well as more teaching on nutrition in school.
"Just because they want it, that doesn't mean that that's what they should be having," Solomon said.
In the contract with ARAMARK, which is due for renewal on June 30, 2007, the school food authority was supposed to establish "an advisory board composed of parents, teachers and students to assist in menu planning."
Though a task force of these groups created a wellness plan for the district in the previous academic year, no current task force exists.
However, parents still have some controls.
Parents can tell the district not to allow their child to purchase extra food on the a la carte menu, like muffins or cookies, Harvey said.
Parents can also monitor what types of foods their children buy. When students buy food, their names and type of purchases (though not specific items) are logged to show which child bought a meal, which child bought extra food and so on.
Urbana Middle School Principal Nancy Clinton said that students "have the opportunity to get ... balanced lunches every day" at the school, adding that most of the students at the school "seem fine with the food."
Harvey said parents should always contact her at her UMS office if they have questions about their child's purchases or about the food service. The school's number is 384-3687. Menus for each month are online at www.usd116.org/home/foodservice.html.
Heilman said that since the last school board meeting, Harvey has talked with Thomas Paine parents and some changes have been made.
"I want to give ARAMARK credit. Yogurt appeared this month," Heilman said. "(Harvey is) trying to find healthier options. We applaud that. Let's keep going."