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Increasing choices and watching the budget in RSU 16
POLAND — The school lunch menu at Poland Regional High School sometimes reads like the specials at a trendy restaurant – there are choices like fish tacos with black bean and corn salsa; Moroccan chicken; pork roast with citrus salsa and couscous, or autumn Cobb salad with sage and vinaigrette.
It's not only the food that's different in RSU 16, covering Poland, Mechanic Falls and Minot. Here, there are no "lunch rooms"– only "cafés."
That difference is important to Nutrition Director Betty Hayes. It aligns with her goal to add inventive new tastes to school food in RSU 16. Although the food might seem exotic, she balks at being told she's "serving gourmet."
"I don't think it's 'gourmet,'" she says, "We're using the same products other schools do; we may be just creating something different with them."
As school districts across the country come into compliance with new nutrition standards for school food, RSU 16 is also trying to find choices that appeal to students – and those they're willing to buy.
Variety is key
Students at PRHS are offered many options when they stream into the school's small café.
With the "meal deal," students choose a maximum of five components from a wide selection including a salad bar, multiple main dishes, chicken fingers, baked fries, fruit, yogurt, milk and juice.
To be considered a reimbursable meal, students need to choose the right combination of protein, grain, fruit, vegetable and dairy.
Students need to be savvy with their choices – chicken fingers count as a protein, while Bosco Sticks – a bread stick filled with cheese – or a hamburger count as both grain and protein.
If that's not enough, students can purchase additional items and treats like potato chips, soft pretzels and ice cream.
That variety is necessary, Hayes says. When she started as director, PRHS was serving pizza five days a week.
"The first year I was here I cut it back to three, then I cut it back to two, all in an effort to focus on being more healthy," Hayes says.
But there is always a balance that needs to be struck – Hayes wants to bring in inventive foods, but she also needs to bring in revenue.
Less than 40 percent of the 1,717 students in RSU 16 qualify for free and reduced lunch.
The district receives fewer reimbursements than neighboring districts – $360,350 just last year.
That's why providing attractive lunch options is important – the district wants a high participation rate.
Hayes says about 68 percent of middle schoolers take school lunch and about 54 percent of high schoolers do – a high proportion.
"If people are getting 39 percent at high school, they're happy," Hayes says. "So we're pleased that we're serving that many."
The school charges the state limit for a full-price lunch – $2.50.
Even with high participation, the numbers don't always add up. The district had to provide $40,000 to fund the nutrition program in recent years. Even though last year's numbers were $21,000 over expenses, Hayes is still paying down the debt.
"The goal is to get it down so the town doesn't supplement me at all," Hayes says. She notes that nutrition programs that don't require at least some taxpayer aid are rare.
Hayes says the middle schoolers are the biggest consumers of the meal deal, while high schoolers – particularly seniors – prefer à la carte.
In her attempt to introduce menu choices, Hayes has brought in four new managers for the district's production kitchens who have the same mindset about school food, including Alex Sirois at PRHS.
Prior to PRHS, Sirois worked at Poland Spring Resort.
"The first year I started, I brought him, because he had the ability to make this type of food," Hayes explains.
Sirois, who attended PRHS as a student five years ago, remembers the café still served coffee, soft drinks and pizza every day.
That's all gone, but it's challenging to get students to select new choices, especially with the updated nutrition standards.
"It's a lot more stuff the kids aren't necessarily interested in," Sirois says. "It is kind of challenging to find ways to make it appeal."
Some items, like fish tacos, have been a hit. Others, like tuna burgers, have been less successful.
The kitchen puts out a limited amount of the new 'exotic' menu items, Sirois says. Usually, he falls back on choices that appeal to students – tried-and-true options like chicken pot pie, pasta and pizza.
"They'll eat pizza all the time," Sirois says. "It's the one thing that, if you go anywhere, the pizza might be terrible, but you know what it's going to taste like."
He describes a difficult balance between adhering to nutrition standards and serving food students and staff will buy.
"You don't want to go all healthy and lose your participation. You lose participation, you lose funding, you lose everything," Sirois says.
"I think a lot of parents probably don't understand that – they don't realize the struggle that it is to make sure that it is healthy and still appeal."
In fact, Sirois says that students on free/reduced lunch are probably receiving the healthiest options. He knows some students who get $50 a week to spend at the café. That money usually isn't spent on a balanced meal.
"The kids who actually have money to spend, they'll come in an blow it on junk," Sirois says. "I was probably the same way in high school."
For that reason, Hayes is relieved RSU 16 didn't qualify for the Healthier U.S. Challenge – a program that rewards healthy school districts – last year.
If RSU 16 qualified, it would mean reducing à la carte options, potentially resulting in further revenue loss.
Politics of nutrition
Hayes, the current vice president of the Maine School Nutrition Association, was the groups' national legislative chair when the new standards were being developed.
She says that decision-makers may have been starstruck by the interest First Lady Michelle Obama showed in school food.
But in a lot of ways, the changes were implemented too quickly to be practical, Hayes says.
Vendors, for example, need to reformulate their products, a process that can take up to two years, according to Hayes. New sodium level requirements will result in even more changes down the road.
Even the commodity food RSU 16 receives from USDA doesn't always meet the requirements – a proposed change that would have prohibited serving potatoes as a starchy vegetable more than once a week particularly upsets Hayes.
"I actually said in a meeting with [legislators] 'you're supplying these products but you don't want us to use them more than once a week. What are you going to do with this surplus?'"
According to Hayes, the idea was to donate the surplus to food pantries.
"Isn't that the same families that we're feeding now in the schools?" Hayes asks.
The rule was eventually amended to allow serving potatoes more than once a week, she says.
Hayes is troubled by the criticism school food has received, particularly in light of activism from celebrities like Jamie Oliver.
"Society is very quick to say: 'school food is making a kid obese,'" she says.
But Maine has been proactive in making school food healthier, Hayes says – especially compared to other states.
She's convinced the cause of obesity and poor health are found outside the school lunch line – by her calculations, school food, even including breakfast, only accounts for 30 percent of annual intake.
"With school lunch it's portion control and limitation of time. I just don't possibly see how we can be the culprit," says Hayes.
Editor's Note: This is the third of a multi-part series on school food.
OPTIONS — Students and staff have plenty of options to choose from at the café in Poland Regional High School. Wide variety is key to keeping participation rates up, says Betty Hayes, RSU 16 nutrition director.
FULLY STOCKED — The salad bar is kept fully stocked at Poland Regional High School. Kitchen Manager Alex Sirois says the salad bar is very popular among high schoolers.