This article is the second installment in a series examining the school lunch program at Aragon.

Although the district’s lunch system meets the requirements set by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), many people ultimately feel that the food service could be better, citing issues with the nutritional value, portion size, and the price of school lunches. However, due to a tight budget, improving SMUHSD’s school lunch has its formidable challenges.

Denis Vorrises, SMUHSD Manager of Food Services, explains, “We run about a 1.9 million dollar budget on a yearly basis. While our goal is to break even, we lose money each year.”

The reality is that approximately 400 students at Aragon alone and even more students within the SMUHSD depend on this lunch program every day. If the SMUHSD is failing to serve healthful, quality, and adequately portioned meals to its students, what else can be done?

In the SMUHSD, limited funding has made it difficult to reform the school lunch system. However, in California, many school districts have sought alternative help from private consulting companies that aim to help school districts assess and improve their lunch programs.

One such company is Lunch Lessons LLC, a consulting firm co-owned by Beth Collins and Ann Cooper. Having led school food services in Colorado and Michigan, both Collins and Cooper have had years of experience with the processed, heat-and-serve lunches popular in most schools. Forming Lunch Lessons LLC in 2006, Collins and Cooper have worked together to reform lunch programs all across the U.S.

When hired by a school district, Lunch Lessons LLC’s team investigates schools within the district and does a holistic assessment of all the factors that make up the school lunch system.

Cooper says, “We really do look at everything. We assess [the schools’] staffing, food, baseline guidelines, facilities, where the school is now, what its strengths are, and more.”

After gathering the specific information and statistics, Lunch Lessons LLC compiles their findings and presents the information, along with recommended short-term and long-term plans, to the district’s school board. The school board then formulates future plans of actions based on Lunch Lessons LLC’s assessment and recommendations.

Cooper comments, “We’ve been pretty successful in our projects, but these things always take time. These things don’t happen over night. Depending on how large the district is, investigating the school and finding alternatives may take a few weeks to a year.”

Back in 2009, Santa Cruz City Schools District (SCCS) hired Lunch Lessons LLC to help assess and reform its school lunch system. Finding issues with the district’s dependence on heat-and-serve meals, the insufficient kitchen facilities, and inadequate administrative leadership and supervision of the program, Lunch Lessons LLC recommended taking several drastic changes.

SCCS’s Account Technician Joyce Lund says, “Before the change, there was more pre-packaged, pre-made food. However, now, the central kitchen is doing lots more scratch cooking.”

Addressing the previous issues with the management of the program, Lund also adds, “The main advice was hiring a chef [to lead the program]. So, the previous manager was removed and a new one was hired for the next school year.”

Improvements were also made on the district’s lunch menu to include more vegetables. Some of the items on the menu include veggie burgers, salads, tofu rice bowls, and various pizzas.

Regarding the success of the new lunch program, Lund comments, “After implementing healthier foods, the sale of lunches actually went down. But, since then, we have experienced an upsurge in the number of paid meals. While the parents are generally happier with the food served, the students are not so happy with the change and are eating less [of school food]. I’m not sure [the sale of lunches] will ever return to the pre-change numbers unless we begin giving the students items that they like…The most popular days are still pizza day.”

While SCCS students have not quite opened up to the improved lunch menu, SCCS still has achieved a lunch system that serves the healthy and quality meals that other school districts are striving for.

As seen in SCCS, consulting firms, such as Lunch Lessons LLC, have proven to be successful. However, many would argue that employing Lunch Lessons LLC or an equivalent consulting firm would be too costly in time and money. Fortunately, there have been simpler ways of reforming lunch systems within California.

One such method that has proven to be successful is a farm-to-school program, which aims for schools to depend on local farmers to supply their fresh produce and breads. In the last decade, farm-to-school programs have been increasingly popular throughout the U.S. In fact, in 2010, the USDA passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which not only made school lunches healthier and more available to kids, but also has a provision that allocates grants and resources to schools that choose to participate in the farm-to-school initiative.

Started in August of 2012, Ag Link is a California-based online networking company created to simplify the farm-to-school process. In the form of a website, Ag Link allows school districts to directly and more easily connect with local farmers for fresh produce, eliminating the middleman companies that typically supply produce to schools at inflated prices. On the website, farmers can post the type of produce they want to sell and at what price. Utilizing the convenience of online shopping, schools can visit the website and order the type and quantity of produce they want and have it shipped to the school.

Concerning Ag Link’s main goals, Ag Link co-founder Jana Nairn explains, “Kids these days are in the habit of eating quick and easy and heavily processed heat-and-serve foods. Therefore, a migration back to real and fresh cooked foods will be a learning process. Schools are in the business of education, and nutrition education for life should be a part of that system. What is served through the meal programs is the place to start. The opportunity to introduce a good variety of seasonally fresh produce to kids should be a priority.”

Through this website, school districts within California have been able to conveniently bring in organic, locally grown fruits and vegetables into schools, which has helped in improving the quality of the meals served.

Jana Nairn, founder of Ag Link, states, “In our first school year alone, we have helped more than 20,000 cases of produce ship directly from farmers to school food services.”

In the last two years, California schools, such as Katherine Finchy Elementary School and the Turlock Unified School District, have adopted this farm-to-school program aimed at supporting local farmers through Ag Link. In purchasing organic, locally grown foods at lower prices, these schools have been able to ensure healthier, unprocessed, and unfrozen meals that meet USDA health codes.

Commenting on the feasibility of implementing a farm-to-school program, Aragon Cafeteria Manager Diane Ynostroza says, “Every month, Aragon is always in the red when it comes to food services, meaning that we spend more than we make and therefore make no profit. So, we have to be careful on what we spend. I don’t know what the cost of [a farm-to-school program] would be. It sounds expensive, but if the cost of low enough, it could be possible.”

On his plans of upgrading SMUHSD’s lunch system, Vorrises states, “In regards to nutrition, we will be updating this portion over the summer. The Obama administration has made major changes to what it offered to students under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act… Because of the major changes with there being many changers over the first year of implementation, we did not want to post anything until we have complete understanding of the changes and make all the additional changes that the government continues to make as they discover what works and what does not work.”

Despite state and federal regulations, there are ways to improve food service. Examples such as farm-to-school and consulting firms demonstrate possible avenues for improvement, yet they also bring their cons. Districts must assess the benefits of increasing health and lowering cost while insuring that sales do not decrease drastically. Whether Aragon or the SMUHSD as a whole opt to try alternative processes remains to be determined.

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