Food for thought

School meals improve at JCPS and nationwide, but will children's health benefit?

Sep 12, 2012 at 5:00 am
Food for thought
Photo by Casey Chalmers

Combine the wonder of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory (subtract the Oompa-Loompas and add actual food groups) with the pristine order of a government science laboratory, and you’ve got a rough image of Jefferson County Public Schools’ Nutrition Services Center, a 69,000-square-foot labyrinth of stainless-steel industrial kitchen equipment located near the fairgrounds. Before first light breaks, 68 workers clad in clinical white and hairnets plow through recipes in measurements that read like the loads hoisted at a World’s Strongest Man competition.

Weighing in at a total of 1,208 pounds, hundreds of pink, fleshy cooked turkeys will get plopped into a towering metal slicer. Bundled-up workers (this particular “cold food prep” room is kept at 40 degrees) measure, bag and label the poultry. One woman secures a tiny sample destined for a lab to ensure the meat is free of any bacteria.

Behind another set of metal doors, 200 gallons of reduced-fat buttermilk ranch dressing brews in a kettle. Metal arms, like a Ferris wheel, slap the speckled liquid to its proper thickness.

In the bakery, a mixing bowl, about the size of teacups used in amusement park rides, holds 250 pounds of blueberry muffin mix. A shovel-like spatula manipulates each stubborn finger of dough clinging to the bowl into a boxy contraption. It then spits out 24 precise mounds into 67 muffin trays parading along a conveyer belt.

As part of a slew of new federal standards intended to make meals healthier, schools must serve only whole-grain rich products for breakfast and lunch by 2014. (Whole-grains provide better sources of iron, fiber and B vitamins than refined grains.)

JCPS abides, pouring 51 percent whole-wheat flour into their mix.

Bakery supervisor Jim Hoerner points to golden muffins lodged on a cooling rack.

“The wheat’s not visible to the eye, which is important,” Hoerner says. “Because we didn’t want kids to open up the muffins and say, ‘Ewww! What’s all those specks in there?”

Should a child spurn the freckled muffin and decide to skip a meal, the district loses money. Nutrition Services is self-sustaining. They receive no district funds. Instead, for every meal a child eats that meets federal guidelines (more on that later) the district receives a reimbursement from the U.S Department of Agriculture — a modest $2.88 if the child qualifies for a free lunch, 28 cents if it’s a paid lunch. Sixty-two percent of the JCPS student population qualifies for free and reduced lunch.

With this reimbursement model, the food must offer broad appeal. Julia Bauscher, JCPS’s Nutrition Services director, says she’s beholden to taste buds often conditioned to sweet, salty, processed foods.

“We’re not the only place students eat. It’s almost like their palates need to be retrained,” she says. “Because I’m just like McDonalds. I have to make them like it so they’ll buy it. If I’m the only one serving lower sodium foods and they don’t like it, they’ll just wait until they get home or bring their lunch.”

Championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, the push for healthier lunches stems from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. It sought to update the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) so that nutrition standards meet the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Steered by recommendations from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, the revamped guidelines start taking effect this year. Districts must reduce sodium in meals. Children now have to take a fruit or vegetable at lunch.

Climbing childhood obesity rates fueled the political momentum needed to adopt crucial changes. It’s now estimated that roughly one-third of American kids are overweight. In Kentucky, 37 percent of kids ages 10 to 17 are considered overweight or obese.

Amidst the public outcry over obesity rates, school lunch has taken a beating. Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” reality show inspired primetime guffaws and gasps at kids’ bulky diets. School lunch certainly deserves some scrutiny (lest we forget the 1980s uproar over the USDA’s proposed reclassification of ketchup to a vegetable).

But Martha Dysart, who manages the JCPS Nutrition Services Center, feels much of the recent criticism is unfair. Parents deserve partial blame. So does rampant physical inactivity.

“You have to consider kids are in school 177 days,” Dysart says. “So we’re responsible to feed them 177 meals. And when you look at that and the number of places they can (eat) outside of school … you have to realize there’s no way school lunch can make kids fat.”

Regardless, JCPS has embraced the new nutrition mandates. In fact, they’ve made many progressive changes on their own ahead of time: Trans fats disappeared in 2007. Brown rice has replaced white. Two years ago, a chef was hired to help overhaul menus. But can all this really improve eating habits and overall health?

A “lunch lady” speaks

Mary Mitchell-Hull, The Academy at Shawnee’s food service manager, won’t need the benefit of nostalgia to uphold her reputation once she’s retired. Ebullient and organized, her crew of four women and one man keep a spotless kitchen. A crumb’s plunge to the red tile prompts a mop’s quick attention.

With nearly three decades of experience in elementary and high school, Mitchell-Hull is an authoritarian one moment, an entertainer the next, breaking into Rockettes-style kicks while singing “We Are Family” with a fellow lunch lady.

It’s lunchtime, about 11:15. A pack of juniors and seniors bounce downstairs and funnel into the cafeteria where whiffs of spiced ground beef and chicken compete for attention.

Lines form at the glass-encased entrees. On tap today: piles of “battered chicken” that look a lot like fried chicken, steamed broccoli, corn, glazed carrots, red beans and brown rice, baked chips and taco meat molded into peaks by the serving spoon, a vibrant orange cheese sauce the color of circus peanuts.

On the other side of the glass, Mitchell-Hull, a short African-American woman dressed in a forest green uniform, hairnet and royal blue reading glasses, calmly awaits the day’s 500 requests.

“Mama, you got a thigh for me?” a student asks during the junior and senior lunch.

“Yeah, I do, baby,” she says scrambling to find a cut of meat for the athletic teen with scraggly facial hair.

One by one, kids select the battered chicken.

“You know what I’m going to say?” asks a cheery girl with a tiny, silver nose ring. “I want the biggest piece of chicken.”

Mitchell-Hull gives an “I knew it” smile.

Last year, the Nutrition Services Center spent about $16 million of its roughly $45 million budget on food. A little less than a quarter of that comes from USDA commodities. These are government-donated items like sliced cheese, beans, canned fruit and ground beef. Commodity donation began during the Great Depression when farmers desperately needed a market and surpluses mounted.

JCPS also purchases food from processors like Tyson Foods and distributors like Sysco. About 20 percent of meal items come scratch-cooked from the Nutrition Services Center.

Such is the case with today’s taco meat. Workers prepare 6,000 servings at a time with about 100 logs of commodity ground beef, spices, perhaps some chopped green peppers, and tomato paste. (JCPS replaced the original recipe’s use of ketchup with tomato paste to reduce sodium.) They’ll bag, chill and store the cooked meat until 14 drivers haul it off in refrigerated trucks.

When it reaches Mitchell-Hull, she simply needs to warm it up. It’s a far different process than when she first arrived on the scene.

“I started when we breaded our own chicken, (baked) our own cookies,” she recalls in between scurrying to refill vats of food. “We did it all from scratch.”

The $22 million Nutrition Services Center started shipping food in 2000. With one facility preparing large portions, nutritional content for all 61,000 lunches and 31,000 breakfasts currently served daily becomes uniform.

“Prior to this, 144 schools might have had a single, standardized recipe to prepare chili,” says Bauscher, director of Nutrition Services. “But every cook in the kitchen felt a little different about what the recipe needs more or less of.”

Mitchell-Hull has witnessed the progression toward a healthier school lunch during her tenure. Flash fryers disappeared in the early ’90s. Frozen, flash-fried chicken nuggets or fries that come from processors are now baked in-house, cutting some grease. In the 1990s, the government dictated that no more than 10 percent of a school lunch’s calories could come from saturated fat (a mandate schools have struggled to meet).

“This is probably one of the most balanced meals they get,” says Mitchell-Hull, who serves up to 300 students breakfast every morning as well. “Sometimes these are the only two meals these kids get. I have some kids come in in the morning and tell me, ‘I’m starving.’ And I say, ‘Why are you starving?’ And they say, ‘I didn’t eat last night.’ And I don’t go any farther than that.”

About 83 percent of The Academy at Shawnee’s student body qualifies for free and reduced lunch. For a family of four, that means income sits at or well below $42,000 a year. Across the district, National School Lunch Program participation drops from around 67 percent in elementary schools to 53 percent in high schools (largely due to stigma), but most kids at Shawnee enroll.

Some students have noticed changes this year, especially when it comes to the district’s signature whole grain rolls. Whereas rolls were once round and fluffy, a flatter (though by all accounts still tasty) hockey puck-sized roll now greets kids.

“They asked me why are we serving these itty-bitty biscuits?” Mitchell-Hull laughs.

As part of the USDA’s changes, students must consume fewer grains and calories. Instead of replacing costly equipment to make a smaller roll, the bakery substitutes some flour with potato flakes, ultimately decreasing the grain portion size and yielding a denser honey-hued bread.

For years, the USDA required calorie minimums for meals. In high school, lunch had to have at least 825 calories. Now, there’s a range: 750-850 for high schools, 600-700 in middle schools, and 550-650 for elementary.

“We said forever that’s the biggest change the USDA needs to make is to back off these calorie requirements,” Bauscher says. “It was difficult to meet that calorie requirement without adding a lot of bread and sugar.”

Those calorie minimums reflect the NSLP’s antiquated roots, dating back to the 1800s in Europe where primarily charitable, private organizations started feeding needy, vagrant children. As early as the mid-1800s and early 1900s, versions of the program arrived in New York City, Philadelphia and Boston where dire hunger plagued poverty-stricken families. The program spread throughout the country over the years, and by 1946 Congress passed a National School Lunch Act, officially dedicating funds to school meals.

Since then, the dynamics of poverty have changed, says Dr. Brooke Sweeney, a pediatrician at University of Louisville’s Healthy for Life! weight management center. A family once potentially facing starvation now likely relies on cheap, highly caloric foods to sustain.

“So you’re still potentially malnourished. You’re not getting all the fruits and vegetables, micronutrients and all those things,” she says. “But you’re getting plenty of calories.”

During these first few weeks of school, Mitchell-Hull and her crew have caught a few students trying to sneak through the line without the mandatory fruit or vegetable on their plate, be it cooked, canned, fresh or stewed.

“They’re kids,” she says. “But you have to remind them that, you know, you need a fruit or vegetable. And, you know, (the students) are pretty good.”

In fact, Mitchell-Hull says her bowls of fresh fruit nearly always dwindle by the end of lunch. But according to data from Nutrition Services, last year about one-third of elementary and high school students voluntarily selected a fresh fruit at lunch, and even fewer opted for a fresh vegetable. Which raises the question: Though kids must take produce, will they eat it or throw it away? Essentially, will dollars wind up in the garbage?

It’s a worry several food service workers expressed to LEO, but Dr. Sweeney still applauds the mandate.

“You may not want to eat it, but it has to be there,” she says. “That’s part of the process of getting used to it: seeing it, touching it, smelling it, eventually getting it on your skin, eventually putting it in your mouth, chewing it, spitting it out.”

Repeated exposure reduces food anxiety, Sweeney says, especially around vegetables.

On this day at Shawnee, battered chicken, always a crowd-pleaser, flies onto trays. Apples and oranges vanish. Fist-sized portions of iceberg lettuce (the district aims to utilize darker lettuces soon) and raw cauliflower and celery are less popular.

Among the long, yellow cafeteria tables, student impressions of school lunch vary.

Chomping on a Granny Smith apple, Devin Bell thinks it’s “good” and “healthy.”?

Picking at a puddle of taco meat, salad and ranch dressing, Louisha Charlton’s verdict? “It’s not tasty. Bad. I wish it was different.”

Over near the spread of hot lunch items, Mitchell-Hull takes the reviews in stride.

“If they all said it was good I’d think somebody paid them,” she laughs.

The chef experiments

JCPS has its own Jamie Oliver, albeit one who speaks with quiet thoughtfulness, not a frenetic tick. Tall with graying sideburns peeking out from his black chef’s hat, Jim Whaley stands in JCPS’s catering kitchen, which doubles as his test kitchen, at the Nutrition Services Center.

Three bundles of fresh kale, six cans of vegetarian pinto beans and a small army of spices await his use. JCPS has charged Whaley with retooling recipes, specifically reducing sodium content. New guidelines call for drastically reducing sodium in school lunch by about half over the next decade. Currently, a high school lunch allows for nearly 1,600 mg of sodium. Doctors recommend only 2,000-3,000 mg a day.

JCPS initially hired Whaley in 2010 as part of a two-year, nearly $8 million citywide grant to improve health. When the grant lapsed, the district kept him on board part time.

“I’ve done volume production, but never anything to this scale,” Whaley says. “It was a little overwhelming at first.”

So far, the former head chef at Louisville’s Southern Baptist Seminary has overhauled 10 JCPS recipes including BBQ chicken and vegetable beef soup. Whaley is tinkering with a few new items as well.

He grabs a bunch of the kale, slices off the stems and tenderly chops the brittle leaves. Following a handwritten recipe, certain notes highlighted in florescent yellow, he spreads the kale on a cookie sheet, misting it with nonfat butter spray, a staple in JCPS kitchens. His “kale chips” will hit schools this fall.

In an effort to incorporate vitamin-packed produce, federal requirements now demand a certain number of servings of dark green leafy vegetables, along with legumes and bright red and orange vegetables over a week.

“It encourages us to offer things like the kale, the spinach, the butternut squash, the sweet potatoes,” says Martha Dysart, Nutrition Services Center manager. “It encourages us to get away from french fries and mashed potatoes and put out some of these different vegetables and different fruits.”

(At one point the USDA considered limiting starchy vegetables to one cup a week but dropped that limit in response to overwhelming negative feedback.)

With a few shakes of salt and pepper, Whaley places the kale in an oven at 275 degrees. Standing near a cooling rack piled with tater tots being prepared for a staff lunch, he looks at his watch. The kale will cook for 10 minutes, just long enough to crisp up the leaves. He hopes this iteration of curious finger food will go over well.

“We have a lot of ambitions about what we would really like to see the students eating: more fresh, more scratch prepared,” he says. “But at the end of the day, what we really have to think about is whether or not the kids will take it.”

Standing over a pot of chicken tortilla soup, Dan Thomas, executive chef of the JCPS catering department, reassures Whaley that kale is “all the rage with the hipster set.” Kids are like fish, he says; if one kid eats it, “they follow.”

Whaley shuffles back to his workspace to experiment with a new recipe — kale with pinto beans. He drops another kale bunch in a perforated pan for a few minutes of steaming.

Of course, eating better will cost more. Remember, a JCPS lunch must total $2.88. (And that’s actually a few cents more than other districts receive because Jefferson County has such a high percentage of low-income students.)

It’s estimated the final regulations will add $3.2 billion to school meal costs nationwide over five years. The USDA has kicked in an extra 8 cents per meal to help cover that cost. Also, the USDA is offering an extra 6 cents for every meal kids purchase that meets the new guidelines. So, with a whopping 14 more cents per meal you’re getting close to the estimated cost of a serving of fresh fruit — 18 to 35 cents.

Freeing up funds for healthier, more expensive offerings requires strategic use of commodities, which is why Nutrition Services orders food that won’t sit on warehouse shelves.

In the last year, the district has spent about one-quarter of a million more on fresh fruit than last year, totaling $1.7 million for 2012-2013. That’s in addition to the $300,000 allotted for produce courtesy of the Department of Defense and their Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. (Obesity has been cited as a threat to national security with an estimated one-third of young adults too overweight to serve in the military.)

JCPS has also committed to purchasing produce from local farms. For this school year, the district secured close to $260,000 in contracts with six regional farmers. It’s a small percentage of their produce that they’d like to see grow.

An additional slice of revenue — about $2.5 million — comes from a la carte sales. As of 2006, restrictions were placed on those purchasable items, which range from baked chips to sparkling fruit juice.

Whaley removes the steamed kale, giving the leaves a few percussive chops. After 37 years as a chef, his time with the district has awoken him to the challenges food service workers face.

Early on, he considered browning onions as a way to add flavor to recipes, a basic technique. But the district’s giant cooking kettles don’t get hot enough. Lunch ladies (and men) who prepare side items like vegetables only have roughly 30 minutes prep time between breakfast and lunch, meaning easy recipes only.

“For me, you have to keep all that in mind from the very beginning of any new recipe,” he says. “Are there too many new ingredients? That’s one thing. Can the school afford those ingredients? … How much time is it going to take?”

Through rectangular-framed glasses, Whaley surveys possible flavors for the kale now topped with pinto beans: cumin, chili powder, pepper. The original recipe called for ham, and he’s experimenting with how to extract meat while keeping flavor.

Whaley’s conviction that kids should eat quality food remains strong. He consults with districts around the state and tells the story of an Eastern Kentucky district that tried making sweet potato tater tots as a way to meet that bright orange/red vegetable mandate. The kids hated them.

“Some of the things the industry is trying to rush in, to work on, are kind of counterproductive,” he says. “We’re still trying to approach a new initiative with old thinking. In other words, meet these new guidelines but with processed foods. Why not put the real thing out there?”

Still, skeptics remain. Jamye Stokes, Logan County’s food service director, says despite articles in the local newspaper and letters sent home explaining the purpose of the new federal guidelines, she’s read Facebook chatter from local parents flustered by the new, smaller portions and government regulates. She worries the USDA’s forceful push of unfamiliar vegetables won’t succeed.

“They keep stuffing down our throats butternut squash,” she says. “Very few people in the South know what butternut squash is, much less eat it. We eat summer squash but not butternut squash. So they’ve made these guidelines pretty strict. Turnip greens as a dark leafy vegetable is going to go over in the South. I don’t know that it’s going to go over in the North.”

The kids eat

Tastes mature over a lifetime. But food preferences and comforts begin in the womb, says Dr. Sweeney. Even babies who exhibit adventurous eating often retreat around school age.

“It’s not unusual for young kids before kindergarten to cut back on what they’re willing to eat,” she says.

That’s clear on a recent August morning at Jacob Elementary in south Louisville. It’s about 8:15. Sleepy-eyed children carrying superhero, “Dora the Explorer” and Justin Bieber backpacks filter off school buses.

The smell of cinnamon overwhelms the spacious, sunlit cafeteria plastered with posters of produce: “Kale tastes good and it’s good for you!” one reads.

Vicki Pruitt, Jacob Elementary’s kitchen manager, along with two other women have just finished glazing cinnamon rolls with vanilla and chocolate icing. Four hundred and eleven students will file in for breakfast this morning. Kids snatch up cinnamon rolls doled out in cardboard trays or cereal and cinnamon toast.

“Good morning! Good morning!” calls out a young, cheerful lunch lady.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

She mans a cash register that chirps every few seconds as kids punch in identification numbers signifying their status as paying or free and reduced students.

“Arianna, put your number in,” she reminds a girl wandering away.

Cashiers play an important role in these new federal guidelines. They determine whether a kid’s food selections qualify as a reimbursable meal. At lunch, that means at least three different items, one being a fruit or vegetable, reside on the plate. That’s how districts will receive that extra 6-cent meal reimbursement starting in October.

So how does the USDA keep tabs on districts? Oversight is more lax than you may think. The USDA relies on state agencies, like the Kentucky Department of Education’s School and Community Nutrition section, to perform audits. Traditionally those have happened every five years but will now happen every three. Auditors review one week’s worth of menus. They ensure cashiers can recognize reimbursable meals and that the district is properly processing free and reduced applications. Failing an audit can result in fiscal penalties.

At JCPS, a database analyzes the nutritional value of menus weekly. This software calculates averages of what’s offered and what kids historically choose. It doesn’t reflect what kids actually consume day to day. Nor does it take into account kids’ acquisition of bonus treats.

During a recent lunch at Olmstead Academy North, one boy who discovered he had a few extra bucks in his account walks away with four chocolate chip cookies sold for 25 cents each, three for 50 cents. His chosen meal contains all the required items. It’s a fully reimbursable meal. The cookies? An added perk.

“Sweet! I love cookies!” he proclaims as he heads for the bustling cafeteria tables.

At Jacob Elementary, a noticeable pattern emerges as kids stream in: Chocolate milk. Chocolate milk. Chocolate milk. Pruitt stocks three bins full of skim chocolate, offering far fewer white skim and low-fat cartons. She knows what her kids prefer. According to Nutrition Services, 67 percent of JCPS kids choose chocolate milk. (Full disclosure: When purchasing milk from the cafeteria, this writer could not resist chocolate either.)

Patty Hollis, a JCPS nutrition consultant accompanying LEO on the visit to Jacob, has fielded complaints about the sugar in flavored milk.

“I know it’s chocolate, but I’d rather see them drink it than no milk at all,” she says. “You get nine essential vitamins from milk.”

Dressed in a tailored short-sleeve suit, the 17-year district veteran clasps her hands behind her back and watches as a young boy gets ready to toss his unopened carton in the trash.

“Honey, you didn’t want your milk?” she calls out with a maternal Kentucky drawl. The small boy with large brown eyes shakes his head no.

Gazing out over rows of bobbing, chewing heads, the notion that kids gravitate toward sweet options is affirmed. As the cinnamon rolls deplete, Golden Grahams doused in chocolate milk become a popular selection. But Hollis adamantly says, “It’s better than no breakfast at all.”

Starting in 2014, schools must offer one cup of fruit at breakfast, something many JCPS schools already do. Although at Jacob, only about two-dozen kids typically grab the sliced orange or apple. Kids prefer the grape, apple and orange juice stacked in crates. Perhaps it’s those finicky tastes that come with the age or habits carried from home. Parents inexorably influence eating patterns.

Logan County’s food services director tells LEO that when the district rid cafeterias of salt packets to reduce sodium, a few kids simply packed saltshakers from home.

On top of all this, a great persuader remains the food industry itself, forking out billions to advertise junk food to children, molding their preferences with animated charms. A recent small-scale study out of Cornell University suggests branding an apple with a familiar character icon greatly increases the chance kids pick the fruit in a lunch line. Who brainwashed these couple hundred preschoolers into produce worship? Elmo.

Regardless of the many outside influences on kids, Dr. Brooke Sweeney is confident as school meals improve, eating habits will follow.

“There is definitely a role for the school to be a positive influence and positive role model, even if that isn’t happening at home,” Sweeney says. “All the better if they complement each other.”

As the 9:05 start of school approaches, a child with icing cemented to his lips and cheek dumps his half-eaten breakfast.

Jacob Elementary’s cashier looks down at a tiny girl with sleepy, blue eyes and freshly brushed hair, a few strands errant with static. She walks up empty handed.

“I already had apple juice at Burger King,” she quietly reports.

“You want anything else?”