Friday, October 02, 2015

Ann Arbor School Lunches

I've lived in the Burns Park School district in Ann Arbor for a number of years. Recently, a lot of news articles have discussed federal regulations concerning school lunches and how they have been implemented and received in schools throughout the country. These have made me curious about the lunch program at Burns Park and throughout the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS). So I received permission to visit and observe the lunch hour at Burns Park.

The fruit and vegetable bar, offering apples, cucumbers, applesauce, carrots,
and chick-pea salad. Burns Park Elementary School, October 1, 2015.
US Dept. of Agriculture requires that school lunches include fruit and vegetables.
Lunch lasts 25 minutes for pupils at Burns Park School, with three seatings to accommodate 470 pupils in Kindergarten through 5th grade. The lunch line goes very fast: I doubt if it was more than 5 minutes from the moment when the first impatient kid got in line until everyone was seated with their trays or with lunch boxes and beginning to eat. For the first 15 minutes or so, the kids seemed pretty absorbed in eating, though they were socializing all the time as well. Some got up to take more applesauce or cucumbers. By the last 5 minutes, the noise level was noticeably rising, and I think they were really ready for their half-hour of outside play time!

Today's lunch: hot dogs, corn, and choices from the fruit and vegetable bar.
Chuck Hatt, Burns Park School Principal, greets each child by name as he dispenses catsup or mustard for their hot dogs.
When the bell for lunch rings, he says "I'm on!"
The weekly lunch menu from the school district's webpage -- my visit was on Thursday.
Food and service for the Ann Arbor Public School program are supplied by a unit of Chartwells, an international corporation, under a contract for the school year. (Chartwells Webpage here.) At the lunch I observed, a serving of corn was included with every hot dog, meeting the USDA requirement. Children were allowed to make their own choice among the other fruits and vegetables. Chartwells has been the AAPS lunchroom supplier since 2007.

Chartwells also participates in the "Farm to School" program using Michigan growers to supply produce; the program also sponsors school vegetable gardens. Today's apples came from one of several Michigan orchards and cucumbers from Ruhlig Farms in Carleton, MI. "Using local food in our school food service also supports local and regional farms in their efforts to be sustaining contributors to our local economy. Chartwells provides Michigan-grown produce in all AAPS cafeterias," says Heather Holland, Director of Dining Services, AAPS.

Meals at Burns Park School are mainly prepared in a small kitchen adjacent to the cafeteria. For example, the hot dogs were heated in the oven and placed in buns by a Chartwell's employee, who also dishes out the hot dogs and corn to the lunch line, and replenishes the fruit and vegetable bar. If the menu included stovetop preparations, such as boiling pasta, the cooking would be done at the larger, more fully equipped kitchen at Pioneer High School around a mile away, and brought to Burns Park for final prep. Both breakfast and lunch are served in the cafeteria, but I only visited at lunchtime.

School meals, as I mentioned, get a lot of attention nationwide -- especially the requirement that fruit and vegetables be a major part of school nutrition programs, which became Department of Agriculture policy in 2012. A recent article in the New York Times said:
"Food and nutrition directors at school districts nationwide say that their trash cans are overflowing while their cash register receipts are diminishing as children either toss out the healthier meals or opt to brown-bag it. While no one argues that the solution is to scrap the law and go back to feeding children junk, there’s been a movement to relax a few of the guidelines as Congress considers whether to reauthorize the legislation, particularly mandates for 100 percent whole grains and extremely low sodium levels, so school meals will be a bit more palatable and reflective of culinary traditions." ("Why Students Hate School Lunches," Kate Murphy, September 26, 2015) 
Reporters and authors of studies of school meals seem to me to be somewhat obsessed by the topic of children throwing away the fruit and vegetables from their lunches. At Burns Park School, I did see kids eating only part of their lunch -- some left the hot dog, some left the bun. I saw a lot of the corn being left on their trays and discarded. But I also saw them eating and seeming to enjoy applesauce, apples, and also cucumbers, which they were dipping in ranch dressing. I saw only one child take a portion of chickpea salad from the vegetable and fruit bar. Quite a few kids were going back for seconds: unlike many school districts the Ann Arbor program allows return visits to the lunch line for more fruit and vegetables -- but not more hot dogs.

While a lot of fruit and vegetables from the lunch trays did go in the trash, I also saw a lot of kids throwing away whole wrapped items or half-eaten items from the lunch boxes they brought from home. And I wonder: is this just the way kids act when no one is coercing them to clean their plates?

Another recent article illustrates the focus on food thrown away rather than on food that's eaten: they observed that more fruit and vegetables were tossed away now -- more than before the program started. As far as the article reported, the study didn't actually observe what the kids ate, only what they wasted. ("Children Tossing School Lunch Fruits and Vegetables,"Nicholas Bakalar,   New York Times, September 7, 2015)

As the kids finish lunch and dump their trash, they are supposed to sort the recyclables from the other garbage. In a few weeks, when everyone is more adjusted to the new school year, Principal Chuck Hatt says there will be fifth graders wearing gloves who serve as the "Green Team" helping to keep the cafeteria clean and make sure the trash is properly sorted.

Vegetarian option: hummus, pita, and grapes. I only saw one of these chosen.
Kids like hot dogs!
Could the food be better? Healthier? Tastier? I'm sure it could, but I'm not sure how much better, considering the constraints of pleasing varied tastes and backgrounds, meeting government mandates, using USDA donated food (which is covered in the AAPS-Chartwells contract, though I don't know any details), and meeting very stringent cost requirements. I think the trend away from junk food in schools is overall a good one.

Lunch boxes from home contained a variety of foods.
Of 470 pupils in the school, around 120 buy the school lunch,
and the rest bring lunch from home. 50% of purchased meals are subsidized. 

After they finish eating, kids have another half hour to play outside.
Lining up to return to class after lunch.
I am grateful to Heather Holland, Director of Dining Services, AAPS; Andrew Cluley, Communications Specialist, AAPS; and Principal Chuck Hatt, Burns Park School/AAPS, for arranging my visit, hosting me, and answering my questions about school lunches.

For all my posts on school lunches, including this one, CLICK HERE.


Jeanie said...

Very interesting, Mae. I think I want to eat lunch there on Monday. Grilled cheese and tomato soup with goldfish? Yessiree! That's my comfort food. (Needs a brownie, though, or cookie. Oh wait -- that's the whole purpose of healthy lunch!)

Really, this is fascinating. A dilemma with what is thrown away to be sure, but at least they are giving it a good try. Cafeteria food will never be gourmet no matter how hard they try, but at least they are doing a good job with a balanced lunch. If the kids don't participate, it's not the school's fault.

Mae Travels said...

In today's New York Times: "The Decline of 'Big Soda'" -- an article about a considerable reduction in America's consumption of soda, including details about how children's diets are changing and child obesity is declining. On average, children's consumption of fruit and vegetables went up slightly (by 16 calories) while their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages went down (by 79 calories) from 2004 to 2012. I wonder if the changes in school lunch programs have contributed to continuation of that trend.

Debra Eliotseats said...

I would love the hummus option. We recently went with an outside vendor at our school and I think we have a bit more healthy options. At least not EVERYTHING is prepackaged and premade. We actually have fresh fruit!

hotlyspiced said...

The food certainly looks better than what I saw on the Jamie Oliver program about what's being served to children in schools in LA. We don't have that situation here because although there is a canteen where you can order your lunch, most parents pack a lunch for their kids xx

Mae Travels said...

@hotlyspiced -- Most parents in this school also pack lunches -- only 120 of the 470 kids on average purchase the lunch. I think Jamie Oliver's programs were more about him than about kids!

~~louise~~ said...

Hi Mae,
What an interesting post, Mae. My only recent exposure to the school lunch program was when I was in Idaho in the Spring. My grandkids usually take lunch from home especially since Noah has so many restrictions and Tabi is pretty much a fruit and veggie kind of gal:) They both would love the fruit and veggie selections, which they are not offered at their school.

I'm usually critical of school lunches but I do understand the dilemmas involved with trying to please everyone. I'm also a firm believer that children learn their eating habits at home and will usually try to follow suit when not at home when similar foods are offered.

As for the waste, unfortunately there is much too much of it in so many venues, ie restaurants and the like. It doesn't surprise me that it would be more noticeable in a school environment not to say schools are the only place though.

Thanks for sharing your visit, Mae. GREAT post!

Barbara said...

All I see online are photos of ghastly, sparce looking trays with half cooked, uncooked or moldy items. Imagine these are the worst of the lot. The lunches in your post don't look too pleased with the healthy aspect, but have read high schoolers don't get enough food. Kids need calories. Hopefully healthy ones.

Mae Travels said...

@Barbara -- Even the alarmists at the New York Times don't paint as bad a picture as you have seen. I guess the photos online are posted by the kids themselves, looking out for the worst in everything! I'm aware of the problem of the most athletic kids not having enough to eat because the whole population is on a diet. But my focus was on the much younger ones.