At Audubon High School, a state inspector will be visiting the school in early March and there are specific regulations the kitchen staff must follow in order to meet all the guidelines. They used to be checked every five years, but the Obama administration changed this review to every three years. This change was supposed to happen in 2010, however, it is just coming into affect now. Every year the kitchen is given a budget and has to follow certain regulations. After calling a local school and a school in Des Moines, the staff learned they follow the same guidelines as Audubon. As the inspector comes, they look to see if every student eating lunch has at least three out of the five components of a meal on their tray. At least one of these has to be a fruit or vegetable by law. The five components are milk, fruits, vegetables, grain, and protein.
With the distribution of the five components, students are not allowed to take excessive or small amounts of these foods. Polly Weitl, a kitchen employee who runs the salad bar, prepares the fruits and other salad condiments into cups. “It really isn’t necessary, but it is just to show [students] what a portion size is,” Weitl said. She is also able to count how many calories a student is consuming just by looking at the portion cups on their tray. Weitl and the other lunch ladies feel Troy Lebeck, as head of the kitchen, should talk to incoming middle school students at their orientation and bring in a lunch tray with a hamburger and fries along with the half-cup of fruit and milk saying this is a proper meal.
The elementary and high school kitchens change with a transition called “offered vs. served.” In elementary, the lunch ladies serve the foods and do not give kids the option of what goes on their trays. In high school the staff places food and gives students the option to take things they want. Before students leave the lunch line they have to take at least one vegetable or one fruit. Students who do not want to eat these foods throw them away and the cafeteria’s money goes into the trash, along with the wasted food. “They came up with offered vs. served to get rid of the waste. Now I feel like we are going backwards. I honestly believe there will be some changes [within state regulations] …coming up relatively soon,” said Lebeck.
Every school in Iowa has a budget that the kitchen follows to purchase groceries with. With the money the kitchen gets from the student and staff lunches, variety is very minimal. The Director of Nutrition at Valley High School in West Des Moines said their students are offered 18 different hot entrées. The Valley High School charges $2.80 per lunch. The current price for an Audubon lunch is $2.50. To keep portion sizes regulated, the students are served the entrée they prefer by kitchen staff.
A little closer to home, a lunch lady from the Exira-EHK schools discussed their lunch system. They run the kitchen similar to Audubon’s kitchen. Some differences between meals in the local schools include the price of Exira-EHK’s meal ($2.30) and the salad at their school is a substitute in place of the hot lunch.
Neither the school nor the government fund school kitchen in Iowa. All the money they receive comes from what the parents put into the lunch account. “There is always a certain minimum that we have to charge every year and there is only so much we can raise it each year. I feel like we basically raise it ten cents a year. To me it feels like we are getting up there a little bit, and so I don’t ever want to raise it say 50 cents,” said Lebeck. The problems some might run into if prices were to raise dramatically may include paying double or triple that difference because of multiple children in school.
The school lunch solution starts with the students. Communicating with the kitchen staff about what the students want is important. All it takes is a polite recommendation about what they would prefer for the following month. Before jumping to conclusions about the changes in the kitchen, know that they have no control over the conditions, and they try to please students with the budget they have.