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Not ALL School Lunches Look THAT Bad!

Today's guest blog is written by Patrick Floegel. Patrick is employed by Seminole County Public Schools as a Dining Services manager

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Recently, Peter DeWitt wrote about the quality of school lunches and how unappetizing they can be (Would You Eat These School Lunches?  Dec. 21, 2014).  I am here to turn the tables and let you know just how great they can be!

While there are some programs that struggle with quality or personnel issues, the ones that get highlighted for various indiscretions receive negative media attention and cast a large shadow over those of us that excel in our craft.  Those programs are typically outliers, at one end of the bell curve. 

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  Under this program, school districts who abide by the numerous regulations receive funding in order to provide meals at a greatly reduced cost (40 cents per day) or at no charge to parents whose income is deemed at or near the poverty level.  The requirements for acceptance into this program are based upon the number of people living in the household and the overall income of those residents.  Students of parents who do not qualify for this program pay $2.25 for lunch at elementary and $2.75 for lunch at secondary in our school district.

The NSLP mandates that we offer lunch options from the following food groups: Meat/Meat Alternative (cheese is included here), Grain/bread, Fruit, Vegetable and Milk.  Students must choose something from at least three groups, and one of those groups needs to be "fruit" or "vegetable".  They are free to choose something from all five groups if they wish.

While the most recent USDA regulations have caused some school districts to struggle, we, continue to serve more meals on a year over year basis.  We do this by providing high quality food and offering several choices served by smiling people.  Frankly, we have adopted a positive attitude toward our operation.  Our students (whom we refer to as "Guests") eat in a "restaurant" not a "cafeteria". (That one simple word can evoke memories of "mystery meat", grumpy "lunch ladies" wielding wooden spoons and other negative feelings, especially among parents).

However, simply using one adjective over another does not ensure success. Let's start with selection.  We offer three or four meal choices per day at the elementary level and at least six choices at the secondary level.  I am attaching a copy of the January menu for both levels. (Elementary / Secondary).  The choices at the secondary level are further increased by offering additional options in the menu subsets.  For example, the menu states that we offer a "Chef Salad meal".  Actually, we offer at least three different types of chef salad meals each day (Ham and Cheese, Turkey and Cheese, Cheese only or a salad with a hard boiled egg).  We offer three different types of pizza and three or four types of subs (both hot and cold).  Therefore when all of the different options are considered, a secondary guest actually has a minimum of twelve meal choices.

Having options is a good thing, but where and how is the food prepared?  Some school districts have central kitchens and the food is trucked to the school in time to be reheated and served.  That is not the case in Seminole County.  All of our schools have full kitchens, and a staff who prepare and serve the food fresh each day. 

Some school districts purchase frozen pizza, which is pre-portioned and sliced.  All that is required is to remove it from the box and heat it up.  Our guests do not get this product.  Our pizza is made fresh in each of our restaurants every day for all of our guests.  We use only top quality ingredients.  We use a premium pizza sauce on our custom crust made with vine-ripened tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil & a custom blend of spices.  As a convenience to our parents, the ingredients for all of our products are listed on the Dining Services web page.

Now let's talk about produce.  We serve as much fresh fruit and veggies as possible.  Living in Florida, we have access to a great variety throughout the year.  In the 2013/14 school year we, served more than 60 varieties of fresh fruit or vegetables.  Our salads are made FRESH each day and are crafted with a blend of romaine, iceberg and spinach then topped with cucumbers, shredded carrots and grape tomatoes.  As was previously mentioned, in order to comply with the NSLP, we need to offer a fruit and a vegetable choice with each meal.  One type of each would meet the requirements.  These requirements do not specify that the fruit or vegetable be "fresh", therefore, canned or frozen items are acceptable.  Some districts offer the minimum.  We, however, offer 4 or 5 types of fruit, (mostly all fresh) and two or three types of fresh veggies each day.  At the secondary level, students may also opt for a side salad with their meal.

We touched on menus, but let's dig deeper.  In addition to ensuring we offer something from the various food groups, there is so much more to be considered when building a menu, not the least of which are the USDA regulations.  Such things as the number of calories, the type of flour used in all of our products, and sodium and sugar content must be carefully coordinated.  We have two Registered Dietitians on our team who navigate the various nuances of the NSLP.

At a time when the nation is experiencing a chronic increase in childhood obesity, the rate of children considered overweight and/or obese has been consistently falling in Seminole County since 2006.  This translates into thousands of children who are no longer at risk for chronic diseases related to obesity.  Before famous chefs became involved in schools, and before the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act of 2010 and new federal initiatives, SCPS Dining Services has been having a positive impact on our children's health.  We, in Dining Services, partner with teachers, parents and students from an educational standpoint.  We offer kitchen tours which show our guests the things we do to prepare their meals.  Schools offer Health Fairs where various businesses and agencies are invited to set up a booth to offer information about healthy lifestyles.

These are the ingredients for a successful school meal program.  To learn more about the lunch program in Seminole County, please click here

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