Reports from the Field – Pflugerville, TX
The pressure – dietary, social, and academic – is on children (and parents) these days to eat well. And it is beginning to look like the education efforts, coupled with the good taste of fresh produce, are paying off, as noted in the following article by Melissa Taboada that appeared in the December 26, 2009 edition of the Austin (TX) American-Statesman.
When two Brookhollow Elementary School kindergartners ran to the food cart, oohing and aahing over the offerings, they weren’t eyeing dessert. The girls were giddy about the selection of watermelon and other fruits and veggies.
Getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables is often a struggle, but the Pflugerville school district has had success in the produce battle. After a successful pilot in the 2008-09 school year, the district this fall expanded the “Go For More” program in all its elementary schools. It’s one of many ways officials are trying to improve school lunches. Students who buy their lunch get unlimited fruits and vegetables at the lunch counter or from carts with fresh veggies and fruit.
Fruit and vegetable consumption has increased by 45 percent among elementary students since the program started districtwide in August, officials said. Some days, students consume more than 13,000 servings overall. “The district has really embraced it, helping establish a nutritional foundation in children so they can continue it into adulthood,” said Geoff Holle, the food services director for the district, which has more than 22,000 students.
National food vendor Aramark, which serves more than 420 school districts, is paying for the extra produce in Pflugerville, but the company declined to disclose the cost. Pflugerville district officials say that the charges from Aramark are balanced by federal funds and student prices so the district does not lose revenue.
Other area school districts are making similar strides in changing up school food. Most have started offering fruit, vegetable or salad carts; in Leander, for instance, every elementary school gets a day with the “A to Z” cart, at which every letter of the alphabet is represented with fruits and vegetables.
Other districts have started offering vegetarian options or wooing students to stick around for lunch with contemporary concepts such as coffee bars. The efforts balance the revenue generating potential of selling popular foods with helping kids eat healthier. Lake Travis High School renovated its cafeteria last year and, like Bastrop High School, opened a coffee bar.
Pflugerville and Round Rock have revamped cafeterias at select elementary schools into “Cool Cafs” to make the lunch rooms more aesthetically pleasing. Brookhollow’s cafeteria is painted in bright yellow, green, and orange, and has scenes depicting Ace the Fox and cartoon children with their favorite sports, fruits and veggies.
The cartoons encourage students to pass on sweets or other goodies with less nutritional value and go for healthier snacks, Pflugerville administrators said. Signs are strategically placed on the lunch line, such as “Whoa!” in front of cookies and other sweets and “Go!” in front of apples and other nutritious items.
“Sometimes they pass up that cookie and go get that fruit,” said Rhonda Vanvoorhis, Brookhollow’s cafeteria manager. “It’s good to see them making those choices.” Vanvoorhis said that when students got back from summer break, they were “all starry-eyed” at the changes to the cafeteria. “It’s been positive,” she said. Some students have been overheard telling their parents visiting for lunch to avoid a “whoa” food and to reach for a healthier “go” choice, said Jessica Hendrick, marketing manager for the district’s food and nutrition services.
The history of school food is interesting, Hendrick said. In the 1980s, schools switched from mostly cooking from scratch to heating prepackaged items as districts turned to outside vendors for supply. And many school cooks at that time lacked culinary training, but that’s changing, she said. “There’s been a big push in general to get back to fresh ingredients and from-scratch cooking,” she said.
Toward that effort, Pflugerville has added garden salads to the elementary school menu twice a week and now offers a daily vegetarian entree, practices that were previously inconsistently available. The Round Rock and Leander districts do the same. Pflugerville also is testing a lunch program at Connally High School to increase the number of school lunches sold by offering the kinds of foods teens see at mall food courts.
Connally’s new deli offers paninis on freshly baked bread, soups and wraps, and a Fresh Mex line with burritos and made-from-scratch salsas. The new offerings have been embraced by students and marked by a 15 percent increase in school food purchases in the first week of school. Only seniors can leave campus during lunch, but more students staying in to eat helps with safety and attendance issues, said Holle, Pflugerville’s food services director.
“The food is just better now,” said Mychaela Parks, a junior at Connally. “Even the seniors with cars stay to eat from the line.” Parks and fellow junior Shamari’a Hill said the portions are larger and more varied.
But there is a slight drawback, the girls said: The increased interest in the new food has caused lunch lines to grow longer. “I just love it,” Hill said. “There’s no negative side except the wait – but it’s worth it.”