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School Lunch Dish: Part Two of Q&A with State College Food Service Director

by on April 20, 2011 6:00 AM

Megan Schaper, food service director for the State College Area School District, is frank: She wants kids to eat a healthy school lunch, but she also wants to keep her job. After my son and the rest of the kids in the district clear out of their respective cafeterias five days a week, Schaper consults her calculator, not a bunch of cookbooks.

I decided to contact Schaper after an earlier piece I wrote entitled "What Schools Feed Our Kids: Pop-Tarts or False Starts?”  generated a fair amount of positive and negative reader feedback. What follows is the rest of my interview with Schaper, including a few questions posed by readers.

(One update from part one of the interview: Schaper mentioned that the school was looking for parents to volunteer in the school cafeteria. The job: To simply encourage kids to make healthy choices. So yesterday I reported for duty, and worked the lunch room for two hours with a tray of carrots, kiwi and other fruit and veggies. I'll write about my experience in the final column of this series.)

What kind of response did you receive to the first Q&A?

It’s funny. I kind of reflected on how critical press seems to get more interest than good press. I had lots of feedback from my colleagues, but have not heard anything back from parents.

Is that frustrating?

It’s just human nature. We’re an easy target. When it’s bad news, it goes loud and far. When it’s good, people are far less interested. I think it’s true with a lot of things in life, not just school lunch.

One reader proposed the idea of an advisory board of interested community members who would suggest solutions to the challenges you outlined. Has anything like this ever been attempted in your tenure?

I did have one years ago but do not have one currently active. The committee did not continue because attendance to meetings was very poor - me and one or two others at best. And, the focus of the interested parties was pretty narrow. However, I am always interested in meeting with parents and community members who would like to make a difference. Contact me at [email protected] and I will coordinate a meeting. But I can’t do everything that everyone wants. There are lots of things we would all love to do, but there are pretty tight parameters regarding what we can do. If I try to serve something that’s healthy, but not necessarily in line with taste preferences, the response from the parent is, ok, I’ll pack a lunch for you.

Sounds like it would be worthwhile to have events where kids are encouraged to try something new.

A couple of years ago we received a fruit and vegetable grant from the USDA. You would not believe the number of kids in the district who had never eaten a fresh pear or a piece of honeydew—things that are common. With this grant, we were able to expose them to new food. Kids were encouraging each other—it was very successful. But these things take money. The school lunch program isn’t really designed to teach kids about healthy eating; it’s designed to feed them quickly and cheap. Everyone would love it if it was a place where kids learned, but it isn’t supported or funded that way at all.

One national program that’s attempted to improve school lunch is "Chefs Move to Schools." Did State College participate?

As soon as they came out with it I signed up, and was ultimately referred to Lisa Palermo, a chef at the Carnegie House. We worked with her at Park Forest Middle School to select and prepare two healthy recipes: pasta primavera and chicken or pollock with black bean & mango salsa. We sampled the recipes with the entire student body last week (the picture to the right shows students serving the salsa) and will be featuring those items on the menu in May.

Why did it appeal to you?

I would love to serve kids things other than tacos and chicken nuggets, but I need 70 percent of students to purchase lunch. There absolutely is an aura about chefs. Kids love watching “Top Chef.” Whey they see a man or a woman in a white coat and a big hat, they’re kind of like rock stars. I can make black bean salsa and it can be delicious, but I can’t get kids to eat it. If the chef is telling them to taste it, all of a sudden it’s something different. It opens the door to something I’d have a hard time doing myself.

But as exciting as "Chefs Move to Schools" was, there were a lot of students who weren't interested in tasting the black bean salsa and many of the pasta primavera plates were returned with the vegetables still on them. I can afford to prepare these food items; I can't make students want to purchase them. We are committed to putting them on the menu and giving them a chance. I'll report back in May to let you know how many students chose these items for their lunch. Cross your fingers that the kids will go through that line instead of the burger and pizza line.

Another reader inquired about bottled water. "Given all of the research on BPA, why do our schools serve most lunch drinks out of plastic bottles?" she asked. "My daughter's school serves most milk in plastic bottles, as well as water. Why can't kids get a paper cup and fill it with water rather than dealing with the cost, waste, and chemicals of plastic? And why no cardboard milk cartons?"

BPAs are generally associated with plastics with the No. 7 on the bottom. The No. 2 that is on the bottom of the milk carton is BPA-free and considered safe. We switched to plastic cartons after a lot of other districts made the change and reported great student preference for the plastic bottles and increased sales of milk and less milk thrown out after lunch. The milk tastes better in the plastic bottles than it does in the paper cartons, which are also lined with a plastic substance—also BPA free— to keep them from leaking.

Water is sold to help subsidize the lunch program. It costs us more to prepare and serve school meals than we charge families. The difference is made up in a la carte sales of bottled water, extra entrees, and at the middle and high schools, snacks. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act does require that free water be available to students in the lunchroom beginning in the fall. Many of our cafeterias and classrooms where students eat do have water fountains that meet that requirement. We will provide thermoses and cups in any location that does not have a water fountain next year.

The appearance of margarine on a recent baked potato bar concerned another reader. "Can you switch to butter or get rid of it altogether?" she asked. "The jury is not out on trans fats."

We specify and purchase trans-fat free margarine. I can’t afford to serve butter instead of margarine. Butter costs two and a half times more.

Personally, my biggest complaint is the availability of chocolate milk. Do we need it?

No, but the reality is, and the research backs this up, that more kids buy and drink milk when chocolate milk is offered. I was at a meeting recently when a teacher said for some reason they only had white milk at breakfast and kids threw it away.

But how long before they adapt to the change, and just start drinking it?

I don’t know. What I do know is that the calcium and the Vitamin D are really important. And I don’t think there’s a two- or three-week period and you’re back to the same level of kids drinking milk that you had before. My concern with the chocolate milk-issue and with a lot of this, I don’t know if the chocolate milk is the problem, as much as that kids are going home and sitting in front of the television, or going home and sitting in front of the computer.

I see your point but you can’t control that. You can only control with you serve.

I do understand that. But if you want a note on your child’s account that says they can have white milk only, we’ll make sure your child only gets white milk. We probably have two parents in the district doing that.

Going back to the financial challenges, will you be affected by the budget deficit?

The school lunch program operates self-sufficiently. I get no funding from the general fund. Sometime we grumble that we’re holding things together by rubber bands and duct tape for longer than we probably should be. But when the school district is looking at a huge deficit, I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief that we’re not taking any money from the general fund. Everything it takes to run a school lunch program is paid for out of my budget.

So you aren’t impacted one bit?

What does concern me is that while we have been in the black for a long, long time (we actually lost $110,000 the year before I came), the Institute of Medicine’s  recommended changes from the new dietary guidelines are going to make me serve things that children aren’t going to eat.

Can you give an example?

We’re going to have to serve beans once a week. I’m not opposed to beans; I think they’re healthy, but in Pennsylvania, beans are not something a lot of kids are excited about. I do think some of these changes are going to make meals less interesting to children and more expensive to serve. And I am concerned that this may tip the balance and our program may not be able to remain self-sufficient. What happens when school lunch program don’t remain self-sufficient is school districts bring in management companies.

And that means a sacrifice in quality?

A management company is not going to run the program terribly; it’s going to run it well. But management companies can probably run the program for about $100,000 less. I pay into the state retirement system, and my employees who work a minimum number of hours pay into the state retirement system. But if a management company comes in, they’ll cut benefits and possibly wages. They aren’t going to take that $100,000 and make school lunch programs much better; they’re going to turn it into corporate profit.

You’ve definitely given me a reality check.

Again, it’s not that I don’t want to make changes, but I need 70 percent of our kids buying. The school district in Berkeley, Calif., is a model for healthy school lunches. But its grant money is drying up. They had more than $200,000 for the school lunch program. They’re a district of 9,000; we’re a district of 7,000. If I asked the State College school board for $200,000 to run my program, I would not have a job.

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Michele Marchetti is a freelance writer and the former managing editor of StateCollege.com. Prior to moving to State College, she spent more than 10 years writing for national magazines. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Fortune, Fortune Small Business, Glamour, U.S. News & World Report, Runner's World, Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, Yoga Life and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MMStateCollege or contact her at [email protected]
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