Meals in schools changed about five years ago when the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued standards that said schools had to reduce sodium, saturated fat, and trans fats from meals in order to be reimbursed through the National School Lunch program.
The program was established in the 1940s as a way to set criteria for meals. School districts only get reimbursed for meals that include healthy items--a student’s tray has to have a fruit or a serving of vegetables, the fries can’t be fried and the grains have to be whole.
School food service directors say the requirements put them under a lot of pressure, especially considering their already-limited budgets. Plus, they must be mindful of the growing childhood obesity epidemic.
Despite the constraints, many directors see a higher purpose to their work, arguing that school lunches are sometimes the healthiest meals many students eat.
Curtistine Walker, director of Pittsburgh Public Schools Food Service, makes sure meals for the district’s 24,000 students meet those federal guidelines each day.
“When it comes to the obesity issue the bottom line is this. What they are consuming outside of school meals is what is making them obese. It’s not the school food that’s making them obese,” she said.
PPS relies on reimbursement from the federal government. About 65 percent of students in the district are considered economically disadvantaged. In fact, so many students qualify for free or reduced lunch that the district has moved to offering all students free food.
In more affluent school districts, most students purchase unsubsidized meals.
In Mt. Lebanon, just south of Pittsburgh, about 10 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The district offers a tiered meal purchasing system. The least expensive option that meets federal guidelines is $2.55. A premium meal that could include, for example, a slice of barbeque chicken pizza rather than pepperoni, is $3.45.
Nolen Fetchko, the district’s food service director, said because more students are able to purchase that premium meal, it impacts the number of options the district provides.
“I’m not disparaging any other district’s meals. They’re serving good food too. But it just allows us more freedom,” he said. “There are districts where you’re looking at 90 cents for a serving of buffalo chicken tenders. That might be out of their price range because they’re serving $2.75 for a meal and you’re already cutting into a third of their meal price with that one serving of buffalo chicken tenders and that’s not accounting for vegetables, fruit, milk or anything else in that meal.”
In 2015, Mt. Lebanon completed at $109 million construction project at the high school. The former main gym was renovated and is now the lunchroom, and a new food court style serving area was built.
Seniors Katie and Amy Jackson said the options have improved since their freshman year when the school offered a more traditional lunch line.
“We have a salad bar, a pizza bar, burgers, chicken patties. And you’ll see that pretty much everyone gets something different,” said Amy Jackson.
Both students participate in an advisory group that gives feedback to Fetchko.
He said lunchroom employees encourage students to grab a piece of fruit or a vegetable serving, but the most important part of the lunch period is making sure kids are eating.
“If a child wants to eat chicken nuggets and French fries every day, they can eat chicken nuggets and French fries every day because we offer it. But it’s not the only thing on the menu,” he said.
The same idea appears to be true at PPS. Walker said at first, when the district shifted to the new nutritional guidelines, some kids complained. The district tried to serve a lasagna a few years ago and it didn’t take.
Elizabeth Fisher, the nutritionist at PPS, said schools introduce new foods slowly, as an alternative to the main meal.
“If we spend a ton of money on really healthy products, that sounds great, but if not a single kid eats it, it’s not nutritional at all,” she said.
But in Pittsburgh, funding is dependent on whether a student has a serving of fruit or vegetables. Schools that don't rely on reimbursements don't have to plan a budget based on what students eat.
Bigger districts like Pittsburgh cut costs by buying premade food like chicken nuggets. They also save on staff by using low-skill workers to heat up the food, rather than trained cooks. These workers are usually employed part-time and paid hourly wages, without benefits.
Mt. Lebanon also buys some premade foods, like chicken nuggets, but they have a chef on staff who makes all of the vegetables and can supervise cooking raw meat.
Still, Pittsburgh does plan to make more from scratch. The district recently installed three 100-gallon kettles at it’s main cooking site in the South Side. That means they can take out some of the salt and preservatives that come in pre-made foods. But some of those pre-made foods will stay because kids are eating them.
School nutritionists are constantly evaluating what students are eating and what should be introduced into lunchrooms next. Every year Pittsburgh invites food companies to share their new recipes. Then, the heads of each school's cafeteria vote on the ones they like.
This year, for the first time, the district let a handful of students vote too. One of the surprise hits, according to students like Obama Academy senior Isaac Conway, was the falafel.
“The falafel is very good and that is something that we could add to the menu to balance out the added fat,” he said.
The district isn't going to force falafel on its students all at once. But in April it will show up in a salad with some homemade Tahini dressing.
Whether the falafel returns next year will depend on the students.
90.5 WESA's Food Access Series was reported in collaboration with PublicSource. PublicSource's Oliver Morrison contributed to this story.