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Big Business on a Little Lunch Tray 

It’s 11:45 am. The bell rings — lunch time! Get in line and follow the class to the lunchroom. What you’ll find there is likely quite different than your own memories of school lunch.

The goal of school meals — providing a nutritious meal so students can be ready to learn — has not changed. What has changed is that students today represent a much more sophisticated consumer. A few old-time favorites (like turkey gravy) are still popular with students, but young people no longer crowd the lunch lines for classic dishes like macaroni and cheese, spaghetti or shepherd’s pie. Students know what they like, and if they can’t pick it up with their fingers, it’s not likely to be eaten.

When I was in school, we were lucky to go out to eat a few times a year. Our special family meal out was at the Pink Flamingo restaurant on Division. Today, families are exposed to fast food, take-and-go meals and eating out on almost a daily basis. Students expect food to look like what they eat “out in the real world.” The school meal program, therefore, needs to reflect the taste preferences of the school customer. Even the best foods are not nutritious unless they are eaten.

Our school menu contains a number of “fast food” items that have been secretly modified to be more nutritious — lower in fat, salt and sugar — but still look and taste good. None of the foods in the school meal program are a bad option. The menu is designed to offer a variety of choices. Items that are not as low in fat and salt, like nachos, are not offered on a daily basis. Fresh fruits and vegetables, however, are offered every day. In fact, fruit and vegetable bars were purchased for every elementary school in the district last year. Now all students, once they have selected their entrée and low-fat milk, can choose between two fresh fruits, two or three fresh vegetables and a canned fruit item.

Choices are important because students are more likely to eat foods they choose themselves, and we are not in the business of feeding garbage cans. At the middle and high schools, more than 15 entrée choices are offered every day, including Caesar grab-and-go salads, made-to-order deli sandwiches, tacos, burritos and wrap sandwiches.

In 2005, Spokane Public Schools implemented a new Nutrition and Fitness policy that eliminated sugared sodas from all student vending machines, and limited the amount of calories and fat in a la carte items at school (a maximum of 250 calories and 9 grams of fat). No vending machines are available to elementary students. Nutrition Services also eliminated the processed meats that used to be a school lunch staple. Bologna, pastrami and Spam have been replaced by low-fat turkey lunch meats. More whole grain items are being added to the menu, and a la carte items are offered in smaller portions.

Spokane Public Schools’ Nutrition Services department doesn’t just do lunch anymore. The 215 team members, including three registered dietitians, serve breakfast, lunch and snacks to 29,000 students and 5,000 employees at 49 schools and 14 support facilities. That equates to an $11 million-a-year school meal program. In addition, we oversee the summer meal program that provides breakfasts and lunches at 42 low-income sites throughout our community.

Nutrition Services, however, is run as a break-even service. Direct expenses (labor, food, equipment) and indirect (lights, electricity, custodial support, secretarial, accounting, etc.) are covered by the revenue brought in from meal sales and from federal reimbursement.

Serving roughly 16,000 lunches, 5,000 breakfasts and 2,000 snacks each school day means we're one of the biggest restaurants in the city of Spokane. Each year we serve:

• 3,780,000 breakfasts and lunches

• More than 150,000 summer meals

• 254,625 gallons of milk

• 288,000 bowls of cereal

• 517,500 beef patties

• 936,000 chicken nuggets

• 115,000 pounds of fresh fruit

• 288,000 pieces of French toast

That's a lot of food for the most important customers in the world. So come to school, grab a tray and create a new school lunch memory. You will love what you see.

Doug Wordell is the Directorof Nutrition Services for Spokane Public Schools

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