Several years ago, students staged a mini revolt over the food they were being served in the Rochester school district. To prove their point, they brought a hamburger from a district cafeteria to a school board meeting, but couldn't find a board member willing to take a bite.
The district subsequently began an ambitious effort to improve the quality, nutritional value, and taste of the food it serves.
There are five components to each meal, says Jerome Underwood, the district's senior director of operations: grain, protein, fruit, vegetables, and milk. Students have to pick at least three, and one has to be a fruit or a vegetable.
The district partners with Wegmans, through a federal grant, to provide students with more choices of fresh fruits and vegetables. Many students may not get berries, melon, and kiwi at home, Underwood says, because of the cost.
And the district has just received a farm-to-school teaching and learning grant that will allow students to grow and harvest some of their own vegetables.
But some of the biggest nutritional improvements have also been a bit of a challenge for students and teachers, Underwood says. For example, the district replaced white bread and pasta with healthier whole wheat versions.
"A lot of kids were not used to seeing pizza with whole wheat crust or brown pasta," Underwood says.
Vending machines, including those in central office, are no longer stocked with sugary soda drinks, candy, and pastries.
Students also tour the district's central kitchen and participate in menu planning.
From an operational standpoint, the district's food services department is an extraordinary undertaking. The RCSD serves about 40,000 meals daily throughout the school year, making it the largest daily provider of meals in the county. And number is expected to increase, Underwood says.
"The main reason we're up is that kids are actually eating the food," Underwood says. "The fact is free food doesn't increase consumption. Better quality drives consumption."
All city students now fall under the federal government's eligibility guidelines for free meals due to poverty.
"Probably the main meals they're getting that day are served here," Underwood says. "What we're doing is really, really crucial for students and their families."
Underwood says the district still has some problems with food service, including logistics. Most of the district's high schools have fully functional kitchens for food preparation. But most of the elementary schools were built without kitchens, so the food is prepared in the district's central kitchen and then distributed.
The elementary schools will eventually get their own kitchens, but it could take as long as 10 years. The kitchen installations are part of the district's massive, 10-year facilities modernization program.
Critics also question the partnerships between large school districts and food service giants like Aramark, since the students can be a captive audience. Aramark is the district's food service contractor.
But Underwood dismisses those concerns. A big company like Aramark has purchasing advantages the district doesn't have, he says.