Good Eats: School lunches keep taking turn for better

These aren’t the lunches parents might remember from their school days. These meals have whole grains, several fruits and veggies to pick from — and they’re made from scratch.

“They brought it up a notch,” said Deborah Wuest, director of Child Nutrition Services with St. Lucie Public Schools.

Wuest said school lunch programs have changed quite a bit over the years, with an emphasis returning to school site-prepared meals over traditional heat-and-serve dishes most parents might remember from when they were in school.

And while yes, chicken nuggets and pizza remain on the menu, nutrition rules require the meals be balanced over the course of the entire week.

The cafeteria cooks are “not just putting food on a plate anymore,” Wuest said. Instead, the St. Lucie School District continuously hosts focus groups made up of students to ensure that what the district offers is eaten.

“We don’t want to see food in the trash,” she said, adding that cafeteria workers do monitor what winds up in the trash bins and take note.

“That’s nutrition down the drain and not in bodies,” Wuest said.

The school district has received a $70,000 grant for its Farm to Schools program, which among other things provides fresh produce to local schools harvested less than 48 hours prior.

The district also receives federal funding through the USDA for the National School Lunch program. Some of those funds have been earmarked for various initiatives in St. Lucie schools.

Such initiatives include a survey system to help arm the nutrition department with feedback regarding the meals.

In the high schools, lunch time means more than just grabbing from a selection along the lunch line. They have “creation stations” (think toppings bar, but bigger).

High school students are more mindful today of eating clean and fresh – they also want the ability to customize their own food, according to Wuest. “It’s made a huge impact,” she said.

Coming soon, students will have access to an app that could capture in real time feedback from the day’s lunch.

“We’ll get a better sense” of what students are eating, more so than based solely on what’s purchased. Just because a student selects the green beans doesn’t mean those beans are eaten.

The school district serves more than 28,000 lunches daily – nearly three-quarters of all meals served.

Wuest explained that the district is responsible for serving more than 40,000 meals daily, including breakfast and even dinner at select sites.

Each of the 10 Title I afterschool programs participating in the 21st Century grant program, as well as 15 Boys and Girls Club locations, receive dinner.

While the district has provided the schools with dinner in the past, the Boys and Girls Clubs are a new addition this year.

“There’s such a need,” Wuest said, noting that many of those who participate in the Boys and Girls Club are food insecure and might not otherwise have anything to eat in the hours after school lets out and school resumes the next morning.

The school district is also adding to its educational curricula by planting gardens at various schools. Though the gardens won’t produce enough food to be used in the school menus, the fresh harvests will be offered up as tastings. Those tastings could help otherwise skeptical students to try new foods.

High schools will receive hydroponic towers to grow herbs such as cilantro, parsley and oregano, Wuest said. Aside from cultivating and harvesting the herbs, the students will get hands-on science lessons on how hydroponics work.

“We’re really excited,” Wuest said, adding that even the elementary school students will get to learn with their own school-site gardens. The program will also provide a nutritional cart, which will be used to teach students how to prep their freshly picked foods. “We’re just starting the process,” she said of the 15 elementary schools in the queue.

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