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The "Why" behind: What's for lunch?

The goal of the Ankeny School Nutrition Services Program:

“Promote a culture of health and wellness in the Ankeny Community School District by providing safe and nutritious foods that support the learning process.”

Have you ever wondered how school lunch and breakfast menus are planned?  In the following, I will attempt to answer some of those frequently asked questions.  If you or your child(ren) have additonal questions or suggestions, I encourage you to contact me.

Scott Litchfield, Nutrition Services Director

Ankeny Community Schools

Q:  What guidelines does the school lunch and breakfast programs follow?

A: Ankeny Community School's Nutrition Services participates in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and National School Breakfast Program (NSBP).  The programs are guided and regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture or USDA guidelines.  Below is a link to a fact sheet regarding the National School Lunch Program.

Q:  What items are required to be offered on the menus each day?

A:  Each day for lunch all grade levels offer the following:

  • A meat/protein - Typically this is the entrée that is offered each day.
  • A whole grain – This may be the bun that the entrée is served on or the breading that the protein is coated in. There are other forms that he grain may be served in as you will see when looking at our menus posted online.
  • Fruits – A fresh fruit is offered every day to all students, there is also typically a canned fruit that is offered as well.
  • Vegetables – Available to our students every day is typically a hot vegetable as well as a lettuce salad.
  • Milk (8oz.) – All milks that are offered are lowfat (1%) to no-fat options. The milks that we currently offer are white skim, chocolate skim, and strawberry skim milks.

Q:  What items do students have to take each day to recieve the best meal price?

A:  For students to receive the full meal price and not have to pay a la carte pricing, they must follow the listed guidelines below:

  • Breakfast - Students are required to take 3 items each day, with one of those items being a fruit.
  • Lunch – Students are required to take at least 3 of the items listed in the previous question, one of which being a fruit or a vegetable. *Note:  Students may take all of the items listed above which includes an entrée (protein and grain), 2 fruits, 2 vegetables, and 1 milk.  While we want students to make sure they are taking advantage of the full meal, we do ask students to only take what they will eat, thus trying to reduce waste. 

Q:  What things are taken into consideration when planning the school lunch menus?

A:  While there are truly lots of things that are taken into consideration when planning a menu.  The top three items that are reviewed constantly are:

  1. Taste and item recognition – Before adding a product to a menu, we ask ourselves, is this something that kids will recognize. Also, if the product is something that kids recognize, does the product taste like something that they know and like.  We accomplish this through taste tests with students of all ages, as well as looking at what restaurants and families are currently serving to kids.
  2. Comply with USDA guidelines – The USDA, through top nutritionists and dieticians, has developed standards to help guide schools in providing well balanced and nutritious meals for students of all ages. The USDA revisions that have occurred over the past few years to the NSLP and NSBP, there have been many healthy changes made to what we serve and how we serve it.  Examples are: 
    1. All grains served through the NSLP and NSBP are whole grains.
    2. Our school lunch program offers two fruits and two vegetables every day at lunch.
    3. The amount of sodium and saturated fat are limited for each item served.
    4. A la carte items sold have to meet certain guidelines that limit the types of snack options that can be sold during the school day. (Visit the Smart Snack Link below to read more about a la carte foods)
  3. CostLike any business we have to be diligent with our budget. Food costs are always considered anytime an item is being considered for our menu.  When we add items to our menus, we procure items in such a way that we can get the best cost per case purchased.   The more cases of an item we tell a manufacturer that we will purchase, the better the price we get per case of that item.  This helps to keep the final price to our customers lower.   

Our program also receives about $300,000 per year from the government in commodity dollars.  This money can be used to help offset the higher costs of some commodity items such as fresh fruits and vegetables, and proteins (Beef, chicken, pork, etc.).

Q.  What are some of the other things that are considered when planning the school menus?

A:  As I said above, there are a lot of things to consider before adding an item to the menu.  Below is a more in depth list of considerations that we make:

  1. We have certain requirements of items that have to be on our menus each week. The guidelines below show what we have to follow in planning our menus.  Here is a link that shows the USDA guidelines that we follow, USDA School Nutrition Menu Guidelines.  Most people don’t realize when looking at our menus, is that we have to offer the following each week:
    1. Dark Green vegetables (Broccoli, Spinach, Kale, Romaine Lettuce)
    2. Red or orange vegetable (Tomatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Red Peppers, Carrots, Acorn, Butternut, or Hubbard Squash, Pumpkin)
    3. Legumes (Beans, peas, lentils)
  2. All of our items have to be grown domestically. There are a few items that are very hard to get from the United States, which would include Mandarin Oranges and Pineapple. These items, our vendors typically have to go outside of the United States to bring in.
  3. Availability of the product for an entire school year. This is whether or not a manufacturer’s physical production of an item can keep up with our demand. 
  4. Storage space - Do we have enough dry, cooler, and/or freezer storage to bring in and hold the amount of cases needed at each school for an item.
  5. Transportation – Because not all of Ankeny Schools cook the food on site, we have to transport a lot of hot and cold food from other kitchens each day. This can be challenging because we have to ensure that all food is help at the appropriate temperatures to keep it safe. 
  6. Allergies – Every year we get manufacture labels and labels from the cases of food themselves, to ensure what ingredients are included in products we purchase. When a new item is looked always look at what allergens are contained in that product.  We do not open any products that contain peanuts /tree nuts in our kitchens nor do we offer any type of products that contain peanuts/tree nut in our elementary buildings. 
  7. Cooking equipment and technical skill – When purchasing a new product we also have to ensure that we have the equipment to cook that item. If we do have the equipment to cook it, we also have to make sure that we have the skill to be able to prepare that item.  Does there need to be extra training for preparing a certain product. 
  8. Non-meat items – As our population increasingly looks to more plant based and less animal based foods, we are always searching for items that help students meet those requirements.

Q:  My child does not get enough calories to sustain them during the day.  I feel that the lunch program does not offer enough food, how can they get larger portions or more food?

A:  The lunch and breakfast guidelines are structured based on an average sized child in each grade level.  While I do understand that this is not a “one size fits all” situation, the guidelines still offer a nutritional balanced meal for all students.  I do ask parents to look at the menus with their children and encourage their children to take full advantage of all of the options offered with our planned meals each day (Refer to the above question about meal offerings). 

Students also have the option of purchasing an entire second meal with all of the options listed above for $3.60 more.  At our highest grades, to purchase two full meals with us, only costs $6.45 ($2.85 for the first meal and $3.60 for the second full meal.  An extra entrée for a student only costs $2.35 meaning that a student could have a full meal with everything listed above plus an extra entrée for $5.20. 

Another option for parents is to send a supplemental food item such an extra sandwich, protein bar, etc. for their child to have in addition to the full meal that is offered each day.

Q:  Why are there not more desserts offered on the menu (this is the one I get most from the students)?

A:  While we do offer an occasional dessert on the menus, we typically don’t include these because desserts add empty calories to a student’s meal.  We have a maximum number of calories that we can plan for each meal by USDA guidelines which limits how much of these type items we can have on the menu.  I would also much rather have students get their calories from items that will sustain their attention, appetites and focus through the rest of their learning day at school…unfortunately, desserts to not offer those types of calories.