School lunches, breakfasts: a balancing act of picky eaters, federal food guidelines

New Richmond HS food service team.

When Brenda Young started working in the food service department for New Richmond Exempted Village School District, cooking from scratch was commonplace.

Lunches then, for example, could include homemade yeast rolls from scratch with turkey and gravy.

That was in 1986.

A lot has changed in the three decades since Young began her career in food service. Today, she’s the director of the food service department. And in an example of nothing stays the same, students’ tastes and federal food guidelines are different.

As the director of food service, Young strives to find foods her fickle clientele will enjoy while adhering to tough nutritional guidelines. She must achieve this delicate balance while also keeping the food service department’s budget in the black.

Like most public school district food service departments, the one operated in New Richmond Schools is a business. It is not supported by the Board of Education. That’s something most people don’t know, Young said.

The food service department is a $1,000,000 operation.

“That seems like a lot of money, but when you’re supporting payroll, benefits, food, equipment repair and/or purchases, it spends quickly,” Young said. “So it’s important for us to have participation in our breakfast and lunch programs. The more students buy, the better off the business operation.”

To ensure participation, Young and her staff strive to serve meals students enjoy. As anyone with children knows, however, that’s easier said than done.

Today’s students prefer “grab-and-go” foods, she said.

“They want to grab something and go sit down and talk to their friends,” Young said.

They like anything that’s chicken, especially chicken nuggets. They also enjoy pizza.

“But we can’t serve them chicken every day,” she said.

Less than a decade ago, the federal government introduced new dietary guidelines that made serving food students like even more challenging. In the 1980s, for example, school cafeterias served up snack cakes, shakes and french fries that were cooked in a fryer. Those days are long gone with federal guidelines making fried food taboo. Today’s food guidelines require less fat and more whole grains be served to students.

Despite these challenges, the New Richmond Schools food service department still manages to create breakfasts and lunches students enjoy. On average, about 41 percent of district students eat school lunch or breakfast with the highest percentage of participation seen at Monroe Elementary and New Richmond Middle School.

Young also keeps costs low. The price of school lunches in New Richmond and elsewhere is determined by a “price equity” tool. Prescribed data is entered in order to determine lunch prices.

While watching the bottom line, Young and her team also remain focused on filling children’s stomachs. Not all students’ families can afford school lunch. The federal free and reduced lunch and breakfast programs help to make sure no child goes hungry.

Getting the forms, however, can be challenging. Young often drives to people’s houses to secure the necessary paperwork for students to receive a free or reduced-price lunch.

Each month Young submits a report to the Ohio Department of Education detailing the number of free, reduced and paid lunches served. The numbers are calculated and a reimbursement issued within about 10 days, she said. The rate is determined by the federal government.

Next year, New Richmond School District parents will be able to fill out the free and reduced lunch/breakfast paperwork online. Young is hopeful this change will make the process easier for everyone.

Young remains focused on keeping costs down for students while keeping the food service department in the black.

Government commodities help in this effort. The commodities are not free but are favorably priced, Young said. Cost savings are also achieved, she said, through the food service department’s membership in Unified Purchasing Group and The Southwestern Ohio Educational Purchasing Council.

“We run a tight ship,” Young said. “I am very proud of our food service department and appreciate their hard work and dedication.

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