Washoe County School District Nutrition Services has partnered with ARAMARK Education to completely change the lunch system in local schools. According to Anthony Cook, nutrition services director for the district, now parents can feel confident their children are eating healthy and the students are happy to have delicious menu options delivered in a fun atmosphere.
Cook said the WCSD board of trustees in April 2010 made a decision to provide healthier meals to students. The trustees chose ARAMARK, a world-renowned company that offers professional food and nutrition education services, to collaborate with the district to make the change.
“We made the entire menu change before school started in August,” Cook said.
Instead of preprocessed foods, Washoe County students now are eating freshly-prepared fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads, pastas and lean proteins. The menus are written with the help of a student advisory committee and meet the gold criteria for the HealthierUS School Challenge, a voluntary initiative established in 2004 to recognize those schools participating in the National School Lunch Program that have created healthier school environments through promotion of nutrition and physical activity.
“Even our chicken nuggets are made with whole grain,” Cook said.
According to a brochure, ARAMARK Education focuses on helping students and districts flourish by providing nutritious, student-friendly menus that promote wellness and meal participation. The company has created a nutrition education program that goes hand-in-hand with the healthier meal options, which WCSD is utilizing.
Cook said a mascot is being used in the elementary schools to teach students the fundamentals of eating well and special nutrition classes are being offered at other schools.
“We are pilot testing a healthy life option at 10 high schools that gives parents and students nutritional education,” Cook said.
At the elementary schools, students have four entrée choices and six fruit and vegetable options each day for lunch as well as protein-packed breakfast selections, he said. Middle and high school students have an even wider variety of choices, with up to 14 entrée options.
But do the students enjoy the new menu?
Cook said school lunch participation is up almost 5 percent from last year and breakfast participation has risen nearly 6 percent.
“The response has been great,” Cook said.
The best part about the fresh and healthy menu, Cook said, is it costs less to prepare.
“Since we moved away from preprocessed food, our current food cost is running a little bit less than last year,” he said.
Even if the price of food continues to rise, Cook said school lunch prices would not.
“The cost will not be raised for next year, even with the inflation in food we are facing,” he said.
Another item to note, Cook said, is that WCSD already is compliant with the majority of proposed regulations currently being considered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regarding school lunch, which would raise standards for servings of fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
Along with healthier food, WCSD and ARAMARK are working on rebranding the cafeterias in all district schools, Cook said. Elementary school cafeterias are being transformed into “Cool Cafs” complete with vibrant new paint and a mascot named “Ace the Fox” that visits lunch rooms and classes and teaches children about the importance of good nutrition. Middle school lunch rooms now are called the “12 Spot” and high school lunch rooms are the “UBU Lounge.”
Cook said cafeterias have been transformed at 22 elementary schools, six middle schools and five high schools in Washoe County thus far. Thirty-one school lunch rooms will be remodeled this summer and the remaining 30 will get a new look during summer 2012.
In a time when the school district is struggling with budget cuts, Cook noted the remodeling projects and redesigned menus are funded with dollars collected for school lunch.
“It’s self-funded,” Cook said. “Food service funds are part of an enterprise fund and do not come out of the district’s general fund.”
The district on Friday unveiled the latest elementary cafeteria to have a makeover. Dignitaries from the WCSD executive cabinet, board of trustees and U.S. Congressman Dean Heller were in attendance at Hidden Valley Elementary in Reno.
Heller, who was recently appointed by Gov. Brian Sandoval to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by John Ensign, said he is thrilled with the change in the lunch program.
“I love it,” Heller said. “I think it is wonderful.”
Students who are healthy have an easier time learning, he said.
“My mother was a school cook for 18 years and my waistline shows it,” Heller joked in reference to unhealthy school lunch programs of the past.
For more information on research used to develop ARAMARK’s lunch and education program, visit www.aramarkschools.com.