Some schools are thinking twice about the long standing practice of passing out fast-food coupons to children as rewards.
When it comes to connecting farmers with students and substituting common cafeteria fare with fresh, local produce grown here in the mountains, Jackson County Schools stands at or near the forefront of Western North Carolina school systems.
Jackson County has encouraged students to actively grow lettuce used in the school’s cafeteria, utilized grant money to help introduce elementary school children to fresh vegetables and tapped into nutritional expertise at Western Carolina University and area community colleges. School cafeteria workers have even been taken on field trips to visit the local farms where some of the produce they use comes from.
On a recent weekday at Smoky Mountain High School, students such as Jesse Ammons were busy in the school’s greenhouse testing the waters for the airoponics lettuce they produce. The roots of airoponics lettuce are neither in soil nor water, but are misted with water droplets.
These students are part of an unusual local foods program here in Sylva that involves those in the school’s agriculture classes learning to grow salad for themselves and other students to enjoy in the school’s cafeteria. “Mustang salad,” they call it, in honor of the school’s mascot.
Ammons is busy, but he takes the time to acknowledge briefly that he does enjoy the hands-on experience he receives in this particular class.
“I do like it,” Ammons said before rushing off to complete another assigned task.
“It’s a win-win situation,” said Jim Hill, the schools’ nutritionist. “This has really helped us in ‘branding’ a salad. That means consumption of salad goes up. Just getting the word out that students’ friends have helped grow the salad gets them more interested.”
Agriculture educator Jeremy Jones said there’s been quite a learning curve to growing the lettuce. It required fieldtrips to Haywood Community College, among other things, to see it being done correctly.
The lettuce project at Smoky Mountain High School is in its third year. To serve the lettuce, Jackson County’s school system had to gain OKs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Jackson County’s health department and the state Department of Public Instruction.
The students can’t grow enough lettuce to fully supply the demand of fellow students, so Hill has reached out to local farmers to help supply additional homegrown products for the cafeteria. This has helped foster ties into the local agriculture community.
Steven Beltram and wife Becca Nestler, who operate Balsam Gardens, are working with the schools in Jackson County. It hasn’t been easy circumnavigating all the federal and state regulations involved, Beltram said.
“But Jim Hill has a major interest in making it happen,” Beltram said. “So we’re hoping our work with Jackson County Schools can be sort of a pilot project and model for other school systems in the region.”
Beltram and Nestler grow organic vegetables, plus raise and sell small livestock such as pigs, turkeys, ducks and chickens off their small, diversified farm. The couple just had their first child and has a special, but understandable, interest in seeing the farm-to-schools program work.
This led them to explore renting greenhouse space at the county’s Green Energy Park. Beltram and Nestler hope to start growing hydroponics lettuce there starting this year and sell the resulting produce to Jackson County Schools.
“That’s an idea we are trying to make happen,” Beltram said.
‘Mustang Salads’ might be the flashy calling card for the local foods program in Jackson County. But there’s much more going on than just that. The schools are also working with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project to introduce kids to local food through school gardens, farm field trips and cooking demonstrations. There are “tasting” events at Cullowhee Valley School on a regular basis, where kids sample a variety of vegetables, presented in fun ways, exposing them to tastes they might not otherwise enjoy.
“It’s phenomenal what ASAP is doing here,” Hill said. “We don’t have the staff or financial ability to do and fund the amount of nutrition projects they are now helping us with.”
Specifically, ASAP was awarded a three-year grant of $600,000 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to integrate farm-to-school course work into the teaching college curriculum at Western Carolina University. The purpose is simple but complex: to get the future teachers of America thinking about how local foods and ultimately, get school kids eating good, locally grown foods.
Cullowhee Valley School, just across the street from WCU, has served as a learning lab for the WCU initiative.
“The students from WCU can come see farm-to-school in action,” said Emily Jackson, program director of ASAP. “They can see first hand children cooking in the classroom, children gardening, taste tests in the cafeteria.”
In addition to the pilot program at Cullowhee Valley, ASAP is working with the Head Start program run by Mountain Projects for pre-K children.
“This is new for us,” said Maggie Cramer, communications coordinator for ASAP, said. “We want to arm (students and educators) with healthy cooking techniques, and how to cook using local ingredients.”
Few restaurants could afford to lose $1 on every meal they serve, but in Haywood County school cafeterias, that’s the reality faced every day.
It costs $3.75 to fix a lunch, including the food and labor. But, the federal government pays just $2.79 for students receiving free or reduced lunches — the sector that makes up the majority of kids going through the lunch line.
The loss of $1 per lunch adds up fast considering there are 5,300 lunches being served in Haywood County schools every day. That’s a loss of nearly $100,000 a month.
The plight is universally shared by every school cafeteria.
“You have to buy your food, your equipment, pay your employees and their benefits — you tell me what restaurant could do that at $2.79,” said Sherry Held, the nutrition director of Macon County Schools.
To plug the hole, schools peddle a la carte items — chips, cookies, ice cream, Gatorade and the like. In all, the sale of snacks generates a little more than $1 million a year in Haywood County to cover the losses on the lunch side.
Granted, the chips are the baked variety only and the cookies and ice cream are low-fat. But, they still aren’t healthy per se.
“I would love not to even put those things out there, but we have to offer them to make up that difference,” said Allison Francis, the nutrition director for Haywood County Schools.
In Swain County, a la carte snacks bring in $150,000 a year, money the school lunch program simply can’t afford to do without.
“They are forced to sell items that students will buy in order to generate money,” said Lynn Harvey, the director of child nutrition for the state of North Carolina.
Absent adequate funding from the federal or state government, the burden to supplement school lunches would fall to local school systems. But they, too, don’t have the dollars to spare.
“Most local boards of education would prefer to put their education dollars in the classroom,” Harvey said. “We need to help our decision makers recognize that adequate meals at school is a tremendous part of academic success.”
There is one school district in the state that has put its money where their students’ mouths are. Asheville City Schools subsidizes the school lunch program so elementary school cafeterias don’t have to sell snacks. Water, 100-percent fruit juice and animal crackers are the only supplemental items found in Asheville City elementary schools.
“The school system was willing to kick in funding to make that happen,” said Beth Palien, the nutrition director for Asheville City Schools. “We want to do what is in the best interest of the child.”
She estimates they are giving up at least $75,000 a year.
That’s something that’s simply not possible for most school districts, despite their hearts being in it.
“I would love to see the meals be part of public education like text books and transportation and not have to sell that other stuff,” Francis said.
Francis is grateful that in Haywood County, the local school system covers indirect costs such as electricity, which certainly helps.
Still, Haywood County is losing about $200,000 dollars a year. Right now, the balance is coming from savings, squirreled away in better times. That fund has been depleted to just $600,000 though and clearly won’t last forever.
Cost constraints are the primary hurdle faced by school cafeterias in serving healthier, better quality food.
Cafeteria workers wish they could serve apples instead of apple juice, baked potatoes instead of fries or even fresh green beans instead of canned. Francis recalled one school principal who asked why they couldn’t buy raw chicken breasts to grill instead of serving frozen chicken nuggets.
It costs 16 cents for four ounces of juice, compared to 30 cents for a whole apple, for example.
“Unfortunately a lot of healthier made-from-scratch items cost more. It takes more time to prepare so you have to have more labor,” Francis said.
That’s a luxury Francis doesn’t have. The workforce at the 16 school cafeterias in Haywood County has been cut from 120 to 107 in two years. Francis luckily was able to make the cuts through attrition rather than lay-offs.
Haywood cafeteria workers have seen a cut in their pay in an effort to make ends meet. They used to spend teacher workdays cleaning and repairing kitchen equipment. But this year, they will stay home on teacher workdays and lose nine days of pay as a result.
Another hurdle to healthier food is the right kitchen equipment — which, in the end, also comes down to money.
At Jonathan Valley Elementary in Haywood County, a fryer still claims coveted floor space in the kitchen, but it hasn’t been used in three years — at least not as a fryer. Until someone hauls it away, it’s been pressed into service as a counter for hot pots and pans.
Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties have phased out fryers almost entirely during the past few years.
“We have no fryers in our school cafeterias at all,” said Diane Shuler, the nutrition director in Swain County. “They are baked, steamed, broiled, boiled.”
It wasn’t cheap, however. Cafeterias had to replace their fryers with giant industrial ovens, lined with enough racks to warm hundreds of corn dogs and potato wedges at a time.
“A new oven is $15,000 to $16,000 dollars,” Francis said.
Discontinuing fryers also means more prep work at a time they are trying to cut back on labor.
“We are feeding such a larger volume of students in such a short period of time, to bake enough fries you have to start a lot earlier,” Shuler said.
In Haywood County, Francis budgets a measly $60,000 a year for equipment. Francis guards the money with her life for the inevitable equipment repair or breakdown.
The dishwashers in the schools date to the 1970s, but it would cost $35,000 a piece to replace them — hardly in the realm of possibility until they absolutely won’t function, she said.
“We joke that we use duct tape to hold everything together. We patch it up as long as we can,” Francis said.
Half or more of the student body at most schools in WNC qualify for free or reduced lunch. In Macon County, 60 percent of the student body is in the program. Here’s how it works:
• For students on free lunch, the federal government reimburses the school for $2.79 a lunch. The student pays nothing.
• For those on reduced lunch, the government reimburses $2.39. The student pays just 40 cents.
• For students who pay out-of-pocket, most school districts charge $2 for at the elementary level and $2.25 at middle and high school. The government kicks in 28 cents for out-of-pocket students.
While there’s little the school system can do about the reimbursement rate from the feds for free and reduced lunch students, it begs the question: why not, at least for out-of-pocket students, charge a price commiserate with the true cost of the lunch?
Out-of-pocket students account for just 10 and 20 percent of the total lunches served in area schools, but charging more for their plates couldn’t hurt. Or could it?
“We would be out pricing ourselves. Parents can’t afford to pay that much,” Francis said.
Raising the cost for out-of-pocket kids would be akin to shooting themselves in the foot, Francis said.
School cafeterias benefit from an economy of scale. It’s better to have those out-of-pocket students buying lunch at the current price than not at all, since the fixed costs of labor and overhead are the biggest expense behind that lunch — not the cost of the food itself. Francis estimates out of the $3.75 she has in every lunch tray, only $1 of that was actually spent on food.
“The more people that participate the better off we are,” Francis said.
But like it or not, schools will be forced by federal pricing mandates, starting next year, to raise the cost of lunch for out-of-pocket students by 10 cents a year during the next several years until it more closely matches its reimbursement level.
Francis had always wanted to go back to school on the side to get her master’s in nutrition. But, now, she is reconsidering which degree she really needs the most.
“The longer I have been in this job, I realize it takes an MBA,” Francis said.
• Total annual budget: $4.86 million
• Percent of budget spent on food: 34 percent
• Amount made selling snacks: $1 million
• Federal reimbursements: $2.3 million
• Self-pay lunches: $900,000
• Average number of lunches served a day: 5,365
• Percent that get lunch: 80 percent in elementary, 79 percent in middle, 65 percent in high
• Total annual budget: $2.5 million
• Percent of budget spent on food: 46 percent
• Amount made selling snacks: $400,000
• Federal reimbursements: $1.575 million
• Self-pay lunches: $450,000
• Average number of lunches served a day: 3,150
• Percent that get lunch: 77 percent in elementary, 66 to 71 percent in middle and high
• Total annual budget: $1.129 million
• Percent of budget spent on food: 35 percent
• Amount made selling snacks: $126,500
• Federal reimbursements: $642,000
• Self-pay lunches: $178,000
• Average number of lunches served a day: 1,443
• Percent that get lunch: 83 percent in elementary, 77 percent in middle, 66 percent in high
It was only 11 a.m., and already 60 fidgeting children had streamed down the lunch line at Jonathan Valley Elementary School, eagerly eying the pans of corndogs and beans, a steady barrage that would continue in five-minute waves until, some 300 lunches later, each class had eaten.
At the end of the serving counter they paused and peered into the milk cooler, pondering whether to grab chocolate or regular, while those lucky enough to have spare change in their pocket might make a dive into the most coveted bin — a freezer full of ice-cream.
Here’s what the kids don’t know. The chocolate milk is fat free, the ice-cream is low fat, and as for the corn dog? Try turkey dogs wrapped in whole-grain dough.
“We try to sneak it in there,” said Allison Francis, the nutrition director for Haywood County Schools.
There’s actually a term for that in school nutrition circles: “stealth health.”
Despite the age-old stereotype, school lunches are the most mulled-over, fought-over, thought-out meal kids are likely to eat all day.
“School food historically gets a bad rap,” said Sherry Held, the school nutrition director in Macon County. “But where can you get a meal as nutritious as ours?”
Held and her counterparts are quick to rally to their own defense.
“People say school meals are not healthy, but let me tell you something, they are,” said Diane Shuler, the school nutritionist in Swain County.
But it isn’t easy.
“It gets kind of complicated,” Shuler said. “People think all I do is feed kids.”
Meeting a litany of federal standards yet fixing something kids like — particularly within the dour budget at their disposal — is a challenge to say the least.
“We probably all need counseling, but it is rewarding,” Held agreed. “If the students are eating good food, it is going to help fuel their minds and bodies.”
School lunches are undoubtedly a big business. While school lunch planners at the local level agonize over their weekly menus, trying to shoehorn all the food groups into a meal kids will eat, giant food manufacturers are employing teams of lobbyists to work the halls of Washington, ensuring pesky details like the health of children don’t stand in the way of bringing their products to market.
Despite the powerful interests behind fried tater-tots and crinkle fries, the federal government is moving slowly but surely toward healthier school lunch trays.
National media made great hay out of the fight over school lunch standards last month — a now notorious debate over whether pizza constitutes a vegetable.
New federal standards for school lunches will be unveiled in January, something that has school nutrition directors waiting somewhat nervously.
“We are about to see a sweeping overhaul in the child nutrition program,” said Lynn Harvey, the state director of child nutrition. “We know it will include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”
It will undoubtedly cost more. The federal government will ante up an additional six cents per lunch to help defray the costs, but Harvey has heard estimates that the cost of providing a single lunch will increase by 56 cents.
Several years ago, North Carolina took matters into its own hands. No more waiting on the federal government to make school lunches healthier. The state would come up with its own guidelines.
Unfortunately, many of the lofty goals — like requiring whole grains and banning fryers — were ultimately side-lined because they cost too much. Instead of standards, they were downgraded to mere “recommendations.”
“The problem is those standards were never funded by the North Carolina General Assembly,” said Harvey.
The standards were tested in 134 elementary schools across the state, but when it came time to make them policy, without funding to help schools make the transition, they were deemed impossible and unfair.
Healthy foods not only cost more and require more staff time to prepare, but school districts would have to replace equipment such as fryers with ovens — something that would cost a single county hundreds of thousands in new kitchen equipment.
At the time, Francis worked in one the few school districts to pilot the standards contemplated by the state. One in particular sticks out in Francis’ mind: the idea of meeting the USDA food group quotas for each and every lunch. Previously, schools counted servings of fruits, vegetables, protein and so on during an entire week and took the average — rather than applying the exact food group standards to each meal.
“It was next to impossible. All of us were in tears trying to plan menus and make it work,” Francis said. That idea was soon dropped.
Unfortunately, so were the other standards.
But, local school districts have voluntarily implemented the recommendations from the state anyway — roughly 80 percent in all. Fruit plays a starring role in desserts, from apple crisp to sliced pears. Tacos are made with ground turkey. Fried foods have been phased out almost entirely.
All the milk is either skim or 1 percent. Salad dressings are low-fat.
In Macon County this year, all chicken products are now whole-muscle chicken, rather than processed parts.
It’s something Shuler would like to do in Swain County as well, but the cost is prohibitive. Whole-muscle chicken products are simply too costly, she said.
One of the biggest pushes has come in whole grains. Bread and buns are whole grain, even the pizza crust. It means brown rice instead of white. Whole-wheat pasta is being slipped into dishes. But, it’s a balancing act.
“If it doesn’t taste good, even if you follow all these guidelines, they aren’t going to eat it,” Held said.
It’s the challenge all school lunch directors face.
“You can make something as healthy as you possibly can, but if it is not something they like, it is going to end up in the trash can,” Francis said.
Francis understands picky kids. For years, she stuffed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in her purse before going to out eat with her kids. There was no way she was going to order and pay for something on the menu her kids wouldn’t eat anyway.
Meanwhile, food companies have seen the writing on the wall. From Sara Lee to Kellogg’s, they offer special wholesale lines for school cafeterias that have lower fat, sugar and salt contents than the grocery store varieties.
Sure you might see pizza on the school menu but looks can be deceiving.
“Our pizza has whole-wheat crust and reduced fat-cheese and turkey pepperoni,” Francis said.
These facts are strikingly absent from the printed lunch menu, however.
“We don’t really want to tell children they are eating whole-grain pizza. We just tell them, ‘You get pizza today!’” Held said.
Held has learned the importance of baby steps in the five years that she has been with Macon County Schools.
“We try to ease them in to making better choices, like whole-wheat spaghetti and slowly eliminating the not so healthy choices,” Held said.
They are also learning what simply doesn’t take. Kids are savvy. They check the school lunch menus, and if they don’t like what’s on it, they bring their lunch that day. The cafeterias can ill-afford to fix food that no one will buy.
Students have summarily rejected whole-wheat mac-and-cheese for example, Held said. In Swain, they learned that lesson the hard way.
The first time Swain County put whole-wheat mac-and-cheese on the serving line this year, kids eagerly loaded it onto their trays but were less than enamored with it once they sat down and started eating. Hoping once more, they went got it again the next time it made a lunch line appearance.
But the third time it turned up on the menu, they wouldn’t touch it. The school cafeteria had to crank out 130 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — the staple substitute when standard menu items are rejected — as kids came through the line.
The problem, however, is that Swain County ordered copious volumes of whole-wheat pasta at the beginning of the year that still has to be used up.
“Live and learn, live and learn,” Shuler said.
Ultimately, the hope is that the good eating habits introduced at school will bleed over into their home life.
“If you daughter came home and said, ‘Mommy I tried sweet potato wedges at school today and they were really yummy,’ you might say, ‘Really?’” Held said. “We do the best we can with the time we have with them.”
Any K-12 student eligible for free or reduced lunch can now get breakfast at no cost — yes, that’s totally free — thanks to a new state initiative that recognizes kids don’t learn as well when they’re hungry.
• $2.79: federal reimbursement for students on free lunch
• $2: school lunch for elementary student paying out of pocket
• $3.75: average cost of preparing a lunch in Haywood County
• 16 cents: cost to school for 4 ounces of juice
• 30 cents: cost to school for an apple
• $15,000-$20,000: cost of an oven to replace a deep fryer
• 35 percent: portion of school lunch budget spent on food
• 65 percent: portion of school lunch budget spent on salaries and overhead