Students from several San Antonio Independent School District high schools were recently asked, for the first time, to vote on changes to the lunch program before meals hit the lunch line. The vote is part of the district’s plan to improve student health and combat food waste.

San Antonio continues to suffer some of the highest adult and adolescent obesity rates of any major U.S. city, especially among Hispanics and African-Americans. For years, industrial style food products heavy in fats and sugar served in public schools have been targeted by food and public health experts. SAISD, the city’s largest inner city public school district, is trying to do something about that.

Students involved in the latest program participated in a November taste test to choose new menu items prepared and presented by their student peers enrolled in the district’s culinary program.

“The logistics were difficult, but this is something we’ve always wanted to do,” said Patricia LeClar, the district’s senior director for child nutrition.

Lunch standards continue to evolve as more and more attention is paid to reducing epidemic levels of child obesity and diabetes around the country. In 2010, the White House implemented new standards for school nutrition programs to increase the amount of vegetable, fruit, whole grains, and lean meat in meals. The federal mandate was criticized after a recent study revealed that a large amount of students, more than half in certain regions, are just throwing away the increased fresh fruits and vegetables on their trays.

A culinary student pauses for a photo. Photo by Rachel Chaney.
A student enrolled in the SAISD’s culinary program shows off a menu item. Photo by Rachel Chaney.

Advocates argue that the students wouldn’t throw food away if recipes were more appealing and that districts aren’t making meals tasty enough to meet students’ standards. That’s why SAISD decided to let students play a direct role in making menu choices before they reach the lunch line.

“Every time we come up with a menu option, it’s not what we prefer as adults,” LeClar said.  “We send out our samples to the students before the school year ends. What the students choose, that’s what goes on the menu.”

If 80% of responses approve a meal item, it’s immediately added to the line-up.

Patricia LeClar, Director of Food and Child Nutrition Services. Photo by Rachel Chaney.
Patricia LeClar, SAISD’s Director of Food and Child Nutrition Services. Photo by Rachel Chaney.

Based on those menu choices, many of the dishes would seem unfamiliar on a dinner plate at home.

“We’re a fast food generation, and it’s our job to compete with the likes of McDonalds,” LeClar said. “We need a healthy product, but a lot of it needs to look something like a chicken nugget. We can serve foods with that appearance that are not fried, but are whole grain, white meat, and loaded with vitamins and minerals. Our whole job is to get students to eat.”

Students compared three different brands for a single dish. Photo by Rachel Chaney.
Students compared three different brands for a single dish. Photo by Rachel Chaney.

Some of those fast food-like meal items include the “buffalo chicken cruncher” and the “egg and bean breakfast fundle” – a cross between of “fun” and a “bundle.” These grab-and-go meal options fit the fast food mold pretty clearly, but also don’t challenge students to select more traditional meal options. Still, some new items fit more conventional molds.

“We’re especially excited about the Asian options. Students are tired of pizza and hamburgers, so when we started our Asian line earlier this year it just took off. Now some of the options we’re presenting are mandarin chicken, General Tsao’s, and we put on a new egg roll that’s baked, whole grain, and low-fat that’s delicious and the kids love it.”

Such contemporary options have a better balance of familiarity and vitamins than the traditional school lunch, but the quick-and-easy food culture still abounds. Students can still purchase sugary juice and snacks like Rice Crispy Treats and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos on campus. The guaranteed drink is milk but the sugar-sweetened strawberry and chocolate varieties are still available and seem to be preferred by students. Chocolate milk and chocolate sugar cereal is a popular, and utterly nutrition-deficit option for kids in the free breakfast program. If students want water to go along with their meals they have to use a hallway drinking fountain.

Students sample fruit flavored drinks at the Food Extravaganza. Photo by Rachel Chaney.
Students sample fruit flavored drinks at the Food Extravaganza. Photo by Rachel Chaney.

It’s no surprise, then, that many parents and students are still dissatisfied with district nutrition standards and the taste of what is on school menus, but making food tasty and meeting federal guidelines is a tall order with the district’s budget limitations.

The average meal costs less than $1.50 for each student, according to SAISD’s Comptroller Shannon Thompson. For the district’s nearly 54,000 students, the annual meal budget is around $45 million. That figure includes breakfast and meals during summer programs as well.

A typical lunch in SAISD with southwestern flavors. Photo by Rachel Chaney.
A typical lunch in SAISD with southwestern flavors. Photo by Rachel Chaney.

Some school districts have had success reducing food waste and increasing acceptance of healthier school meals by changing how they source their food. The USDA has released a report that shows their school grants have connected farms to 12,300 schools and 6.9 million students. About 21% of schools with farm programs reported decreased meal costs, and 17% reported increases in students finishing their meals.

In the last two years, schools that purchase local food have nearly doubled to reach nearly $600 million nationally, according to the USDA’s census data. Purchasing contracts like those at schools can be an important source of reliable sales for farmers.

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Many of the same schools that have changed their ingredient sourcing have created on-campus gardens for students to plant and grow and gain hands-on learning about fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables. Studies suggest that students that work in a garden are far more likely to positively view fruits and vegetables and get more exercise.

In November, North East ISD announced it was the first school district recipient in San Antonio for a USDA Farm to School Program planning grant.

The $45,000 will be used “to build relationships with local producers and brainstorm ways to increase local purchasing for our school cafeterias,” said Sharon Glosson, executive director of NEISD’s School Nutrition Services. An implementation grant that could follow might transform the district’s purchasing decisions and serve as a model for the rest of the city.

Innovative programs like student-selected meals and the Farm to School program could help change San Antonio’s school lunch programs, making menu items healthier and tastier while decreasing food waste, all without increasing costs.

One student at SAISD’s recent tasting session looked bored walking into the gym, but when he took a bite out of the third option for teriyaki chicken, he bumped elbows excitedly with a friend standing next to him and said, “Wow! This is amazing!”

When he tossed his plate away, it was spotless.

*Top image: Two girls sample food and provide feedback at the Food Extravaganza. Photo by Rachel Chaney.

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Mitch Hagney

Mitch Hagney

Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.