Students at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School will see more food on their cafeteria trays and will enjoy more of their favorite offerings this fall because the district has decided to leave the rigid requirements of the National School Lunch Program.
Students who formerly scarfed down taco salads, soups and chicken patties started bringing their own grub last school year after the district implemented new federal rules about smaller portions and the number and type of vegetables offered.
Parents complained that their children who ate the smaller school lunches came home famished, but parents were paying the same amount as they did the previous year.
And cafeteria workers who prepared the dishes were disheartened to see children throw away the beans and other veggies they didn’t want, said Nicky Boehm, district food service director. Among other things, the federal rules require schools to serve vegetables and legumes separately from the entree rather than mixing them into a soup, salsa or quesadilla as students prefer.
“We have a harder time selling the fruits and vegetables at the middle and high schools,” Boehm said.
As a result, the food service department ended the year $100,000 in the hole. It previously made enough money selling lunches to cover the cost of food and the wages of its 26 mostly part-time staffers.
“Our program before this year was really excellent,” she said.
The district’s new menu offerings next year will follow the spirit of the guidelines and be just as healthy as the meals allowed in the National School Lunch Program, Boehm said.
“We’re still going to serve healthy foods, nutritious foods,” she said. “Everything we do, it’s always calorie-conscious.”
Some of the offerings she plans are Tex-Mex dishes, chicken and biscuits and perhaps even barbecued beef or turkey.
Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake becomes the third school district in the region to leave the school lunch program. Niskayuna and Voorheesville schools opted out of the program in the middle of last school year, citing many of the same concerns.
Burnt Hills spokeswoman Christy Multer expects other local districts to follow suit, though only the more affluent ones will probably be able to afford to do so.
Districts must participate in the national program in order to receive partial reimbursement for free and reduced lunches and to get low-cost federal commodity foods.
Only 9 percent of Burnt Hills students receive free or reduced lunches — the state average is 43 percent — and the district likely will be able to make up for the loss of federal funds by hiking the meal cost 25 cents, Multer said.
Next year, lunches will cost $2.50 for elementary students, $3 for secondary students and $4 for adults. That price includes milk.
School lunches must contain five components daily — protein, grains, fruits, vegetables and milk.
The federal rules specify what type of vegetables are served each week, instead of requiring one vegetable daily and leaving the choice up to food-service directors as they used to.
And there are daily and weekly limits on calories and grains, with different minimums and maximums for elementary, middle and high school students.
While the rules were well-meaning, students rejected them.
“We certainly applaud the idea of fighting obesity, but it wasn’t working,” Multer said.
Elementary-schoolers who were used to ordering the popular chicken patty viewed the new, smaller version as a “slider” and wanted seconds, she said.
And a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work in schools; petite high-schoolers and bulky football players have different caloric needs, Boehm said.
“You can’t fit everybody in the same box.”
The new menus will be posted on the district’s website before school starts this fall, and the district will work harder than it has in the past to market the school lunches to parents and students to gain back the customers it lost, Boehm said.
“We’re like any business,” she said. “We’re a self-sustaining unit in the school.”