Cultivating Interest in Healthy Lunches

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Schools continue to improve menus, but student interest is lacking

By Amy Orr | LB Indy

An LBUSD employee prepares a chicken fajita burrito.

“We use seasonal produce that is local and organic. Our beef is grass-fed, with no hormones and no nitrates.”

This sounds like an advertisement for a farm-to-table restaurant, but it is actually Debra Appel describing the food served in Laguna Beach schools. Appel is the supervisor of Nutrition Services for Laguna Beach Unified School District.

“We have a great program for our students,” Appel said. “We do scratch cooking and our meals are prepared on site.”

Appel said Nutrition Services is proud to reflect the healthy, environmentally-friendly community of Laguna. In response to local suggestions, the department has upgraded its milk, eliminated soda, added salad bars, reduced processed foods, improved the beef and produce selection, switched to biodegradable utensils, and eliminated straws.

One of the school district’s lunchtime offerings—a chicken fajita burrito.

Nevertheless, interest in LBUSD meals is low. Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Jeff Dixon said that only 600 to 650 of the district’s 3,000 students purchase lunch on a typical school day.

Since 2012, government regulations have limited the amount of saturated fat and sodium allowed in school meals. Appel said this impacts the taste and appeal of the meals.

“Kids are finding school food more bland and less appealing,” Appel said. “Over time, their palates will change, but for now it’s definitely an adjustment for them.”

In 2010, Congress enacted the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (which took effect in 2012). Designed to end childhood obesity, this legislation required public schools to reduce calories and include more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables in school meals. Despite the act’s good intentions, it led to a drop in student participation and an increase in food waste.

“We have to stay within the government regulations, but we still want kids to be excited about our meals,” Appel explained. “Every time we come up with a new entrée, we conduct taste tests to see what they think about it.”

: A vegetarian Greek salad is one of the many healthy options for Laguna students at lunchtime.

Appel said her department surveys student reaction by giving them samples during recess. Although many youngsters do not want to use their play time to taste new food, she said the input that students provide is helpful. She hopes to get more buy-in on new recipes by expanding menu testing in the future.

“We are looking into new avenues that include sharing bites with parents and teachers,” Appel said. “Maybe we’ll serve a potential new entrée as the snack at our LCAP meetings. Then we could gather opinions from parents and staff at the various sites.”

“The district is currently soliciting feedback and ideas from the board and community members,” Dixon said. “We want to make sure our nutritional changes are thoughtful.”

The district plans to increase its outreach by expanding its use of social media. According to Dixon, menu items and snacks will soon be making regular appearances on the district’s Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter pages.

“Outreach is key in making people more aware of our services,” Dixon commented.

“The Nutrition Services staff is very invested in the success of our program,” Appel said. “We would never serve the kids something we wouldn’t eat ourselves.”

To learn more about Nutrition Services and see current LBUSD menus, visit the Departments section of Mobile meal ordering can be done from smartphones by using the Web Menus app.




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