School lunch nutrition finds new flavors

Food trucks and taco bars whet students' appetites with spiced up dishes

As district leaders boost school lunch nutrition, today’s cafeterias face stiff competition from home-prepared meals and, among high school students, food trucks and nearby eateries.

Savvy school dining directors have responded by bringing in their own food trucks and offering customizable meals with healthier ingredients to school lunch the feel of students’ favorite food courts.

“We’re replicating what you see in quick-serve [restaurants],” says Jessica Shelly, food services director for Cincinnati Public Schools (38,000 students). Spice stations, which have been installed in every school in her district, top the list of Shelly’s favorite new innovations. They allow kids to adapt their meals to their diverse tastes—or explore new ones.

Other districts have brought in farmers and beekeepers to provide nutrition education. One thing all the new offerings share: Administrators intend to build parental trust—and student excitement—around school food programs.

Alligator gumbo for school lunch

A bright food truck and a motor coach now visit different schools within the nation’s ninth-largest district, Orange County Public Schools (212,000 students). The truck serves food through a window; the bus offers students in the Florida district an enhanced experience that includes TVs displaying fun food facts. Both vehicles are wrapped with colorful graphics. The district will add a second truck (with a child-friendly lower window) by fall 2019.

Meal purchases work the same as in the cafeteria: Students use their regular ID cards to buy lunch using their meal accounts. Students on free and reduced-price lunch also receive their benefits.

Orange County Public Schools lunch bus provides students an enhanced meal experience that includes TVs displaying fun food facts.
Orange County Public Schools lunch bus provides students an enhanced meal experience that includes TVs displaying fun food facts.

Students don’t associate the vehicles with school lunch, says Kristan Hayden, marketing and special projects manager for the Orlando-area district. “It’s something new and fun and innovative to interact with, especially the motor coach,” Hayden says. “The kids are thrilled when it pulls up—it’s like another field day.”

The mobile menus offer three dishes at a time, and Hayden lets students vote for their favorites on an iPad. She markets the top vote-getter as a “Food Truck Favorite” in the cafeteria.

Food trucks also whet the appetites of all students in South Carolina’s largest district, Greenville County Schools (76,000 students), says Joe Urban, director of food and nutrition services. Urban bought a surplus bread truck through a state website for $11,000 a few years ago and retrofitted it for $39,000. This year, a local leadership professionals group is donating a similar vehicle.

Teachers escort elementary school students to the trucks, while middle and high school students can eat on their own in common areas. Urban offers free tests of dishes such as salmon curry, alligator gumbo and pork-belly tacos from the truck. He credits Food Network shows for making mobile food cool for the young.

“These kids have a stronger foodie culture than we did as kids,” Urban says. “If a really attractive food truck shows up during lunchtime and is handing out chef-quality items, they’ll eat anything. If we want kids to try something and give feedback, a food truck is the best way to do that.”

Don’t hide the ingredients

Parents could see every ingredient used in Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia—but until last fall, they had to visit the nutrition office and look through recipe binders. Now, the district lists every ingredient online at, says Stefanie Dove, the marketing and community outreach coordinator.

The website also contains contact information and product specifications for every vendor. People can evaluate how different animals were raised or vegetables were grown, and they contact the provider directly with more detailed questions.

Loudoun County spent several years cleaning house when it came to ingredients. District leaders eliminated all artificial sweeteners and dyes from their menus. They told vendors not to waste time sending samples that contained either.

Listing ingredients has generated positive social-media feedback, especially as food allergies have become more prevalent. School lunch participation increased more than 6 percent during the semester when open labeling was introduced, Dove reports.

“The general public always thinks we’re trying to hide things, so putting our labels online really helps,” she says. “We want to demonstrate to parents that we are transparent. They’re now allowing their students to participate in our program.”

Loudon County recipe: Greek veggie grain bowl

Maple cinnamon sprinkles liven up vegetables

To cater to diverse cultures, Cincinnati school cafeterias offer spice stations, which also drive traffic to salad bars. Setup costs covered dispensers and jars too big to move around the lunchroom. Today, the district’s cost is under 1 cent per meal, and the customization makes kids more apt to enjoy various dishes.

What we’ve found is [students are] more creative than we are sometimes in creating flavors,” Shelly says. “They’ll put maple cinnamon sprinkles on roasted vegetables. That’s so much more effective than saying, ‘I made you lemon-pepper broccoli.’”
Cincinnati offers five different spices per day, rotating among options such as an Italian blend, a Mexican mix, maple cinnamon, crushed red pepper, garlic herb, Butter Buds, Sriracha sauce and ranch powder.

The next frontier at the high school level is customizing hot stations. Cincinnati now serves mac and cheese that students can top with barbecued chicken or pulled pork, and offers buffalo wings that diners can enliven with teriyaki glaze, garlic Parmesan or spicy buffalo sauce. The district is also piloting choose-your-own-filling burritos and ramen.

Is this a long-line nightmare waiting to happen? That’s the fear, but the Cincinnati district—where 600 kids might come through a cafeteria during a 30-minute lunch period—has found there are ways around queues. Administrators let different grade levels customize on different days, and found that students self-police their classmates.

Safe place to taste beets

You can’t count on kids eating Brussels sprouts at home, so why would they risk eating them at school? West New York School District in New Jersey (8,400 students) has found a way: introducing different fruits and veggies at snack time, often with a chef, farmer or teacher presenting nutrition information.

FRYING UP FLAVOR—The West New York School District and other systems now try to whet students' appetites by serving more international dishes.
FRYING UP FLAVOR—The West New York School District and other systems now try to whet students’ appetites by serving more international dishes.

“There’s a multitude of cross-curricular stuff we do as part of the fruit and vegetable program,” says Sal Valenza, regional director of food services for Nu Way Concessionaires, the district’s food services provider. In each school, a teacher—who is paid a small stipend to serve as a fruit and vegetable coordinator—shares nutrition education ideas.

The coordinator, for instance, might use produce in math problems, such as calculating how many strawberries someone would have to eat to get to a certain number of seeds.

The district’s head chef visits classrooms to let kids sample roasted fingerling potatoes and other dishes at snack time. In other activities, food producers give presentations on their livelihoods. For instance, a beekeeper recently took apart a hive for students, and a “vermiculturist” brought in a bundle of worms to discuss composting.

District leaders hope these special introductions will motivate students to eat more fruits and veggies for lunch—and for life. “If I were to put beets on an elementary school lunch line, kids would never eat them,” Valenza says. “But because they tried them in the classroom, they had a chance to acclimate and eat them in a safe space.”

Lynn Freehill-Maye is a writer who lives in Beacon, New York.

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