Lunch program overhaul going smoothly

The Johnson County School district has been working to revamp its lunch program since the beginning of the school year, but the program’s director says there is still work to be done when it comes to convincing high school students to grab lunch at the school.

It’s been over four months since the Johnson County School District implemented a new lunch program to encourage students to return to the program they had abandoned in recent years. Getting students to buy their lunches again at the school is important financially for the district’s program.

While the district’s business manager, Eileen Bentley, won’t have hard numbers on whether the lunch program has been meeting its goals until closer to the end of the school year, she said that anecdotal evidence offers hope that things are moving in the right direction.

“I’m hearing from a lot of the kitchen assistants and cooks that they have been throwing less food away and that it seems like more students have been participating in the program,” Bentley said. “In addition, a lot of the parents that I’ve talked to in the community have told me how much their kids have been enjoying the food. All of this is very good news and provides hope as we continue to move forward with this project in the new year.”

The lunch program revamp was started in the fall to lure students back. Participation in the program had dropped from 62 percent in the 2014-15 school year to 48 percent in 2015-16, Bentley said. In practical numbers, this meant that 561 students were served lunch each day in May 2016.

Bentley said in a Sept. 1 Bulletin article that one potential reason for the decreased participation in the program was what students perceived as a “lack of consistency” in the quality of the food.

“Last year, we tried experimenting a bit with different recipes,” Bentley said. “We thought that would help things, but we know anecdotally from the kids that it led to consistency and quality issues.”

Fewer students buying lunch meant less revenue coming into the program. One lunch can bring in anywhere from $2.75 to $3.25 in revenue for the district, depending on the age of the student.

Even worse, this past summer, the school board decided the district could no longer subsidize the food services program, for the first time in the district’s history, due to the district’s declining revenue. This decision led to a 14 percent decline in the program’s budget – approximately $60,000.

But Bentley expressed hope at the time that, if the district made a concerted effort to appeal to students, lunch program participation and revenue would both increase.

“There is only one school district in the state that actually ends the year in the black,” Bentley said in the fall of 2016. “So while I’m not sure that this program will ever actually earn money, I believe that we can make it close. This may be incredibly naïve of me, but I really believe that if we’re producing something that kids want to eat, we can really turn this program around.”

Staff began by tweaking menus so that they consisted of a four-week rotation of the district’s most popular lunches – among them, pizza and hamburgers. Other changes to the program included using decorations to create a more kid-friendly environment in the cafeterias and asking Cathy Hinz, the Sheridan School District No. 2 food service director, to act as a “mentor” to the program and provide advice on how to better appeal to students.

So far these investments seem to be paying dividends, Bentley said.

“Representatives of the Wyoming Department of Education stopped by in December and were really impressed with the direction that the program was headed,” Bentley said. “The general verdict was that we had made some good progress, but there is always room for improvement. That’s what we’ll be working on in this semester.”

One particular question that Bentley said she would turn her attention to is how to convince Buffalo High School students to eat lunch at the school.

“Of all the schools in the district, that’s the one that has seen the least growth in participation in this program,” Bentley said. “When you think about it, that really makes sense. These students have the ability to go anywhere for lunch, so why would they stay at the high school? Hopefully, we can give them a reason.”

Bentley said she would continue to modify the menu at the high school and also work to make the cafeteria more appealing to students.

“That cafeteria still has sort of an institutional feel and isn’t very inviting,” Bentley said. “We want to make it more inviting and a lot of that is in presentation and look. We hope to rearrange things a bit so that it has more of an appealing café look.”

Bentley also said she wants to form a committee of high school students who could provide her with feedback on how to make the program more enticing for students.

Similarly, Bentley said, she hoped to get the “Taste Buds” program off the ground in all schools across the district this semester. “Taste Buds” was first proposed this past summer as a way to help students influence the district’s menu. It involves using student taste testers to try – and give feedback on – proposed additions to the menu.

“I’ve been chatting a lot with the kitchen staff, and we’ve been trying to decide how we want that program to be operated,” Bentley said. “I’m certainly hopeful that we can get that up and running before the end of the school year. I think it will be a great addition to the lunch program because the more kids that we have actively involved and invested in making lunch-related decisions, the more likely they are to actually come in and eat lunch.”

Another challenge that Bentley said she would continue to face involves meeting national nutrition guidelines. These guidelines range from including a certain amount of fruits and vegetables at each meal to making sure that students receive a certain amount of calories at each meal.

“It is always challenging to meet those guidelines in a way that is both affordable and appealing to kids,” Bentley said. “One way we hope to get around this is through implementing our farm-to-school program, which would involve purchasing fruits and vegetables from local produce growers. The national guidelines are much less stringent when we’re using fresh local produce, so we’re hopeful that implementing that program will give us a little more flexibility.”

Bentley said she hopes to have the farm-to-school program implemented by the end of the semester.

In the end, Bentley acknowledged that there were still improvements to be made. But she also noted that the district had come a long way in just a short time.

“This has definitely been an adventure for us,” Bentley said. “The question we were faced with when we started this program was, ‘How do we meet strict national nutrition guidelines inexpensively in a way that’s popular among our students? There are no easy answers to that question, but I’d like to think that we have been making some strides in the right direction.”

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