New federal guidelines for school lunches, coupled with parent and student requests for more food choices, have changed the meal plan for Tacoma students this school year.
New limits on grain consumption mean slightly smaller hamburger buns and thinner pizza crusts. Tacoma has also introduced new foods, such as hummus, more vegetarian options, whole grain corn dogs and sweet potato puffs. Romaine lettuce has replaced iceberg, which has less nutritional value.
The menu could change even more, as school leaders explore ways to serve locally produced foods on lunch trays on Tacoma campuses.
Meanwhile, the district faces the financial reality of running a food-service program that struggles to break even because a growing number of Tacoma students are qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches due to an increase in the local poverty level.
The new federal rules rolled out this year the first update to the National School Lunch Program since 1995. Under the program, schools get cash subsidies and food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each meal they serve, but meals must meet federal guidelines.
The goal of the new guideline was to create leaner, greener menus less fat and calories, more fruits and vegetables. The new rules require every student eating a school lunch to select a fruit or vegetable, and Tacoma offers four of each.
But as every lunch lady and parent knows, offering healthy choices for kids doesnt ensure the food will be consumed.
Its not nutrition unless a student eats it, said Barbara Pyper, a registered dietitian and consultant for Tacoma and other school districts.
She spoke to the Tacoma School Board last week as board members were given an overview of the school districts nutrition services program.
Rather than having kids throw away good food if they dont want to eat it, Tacoma allows students to share with others. Unwanted packaged fruits and vegetables a box of raisins, a sealed plastic bag of carrots can be placed on a designated cafeteria tasting table for students who want them.
Pyper said Tacoma was more prepared than some school districts for the rule changes.
Some districts have struggled, she said. But here in this district it has been a pretty smooth transition.
The federal lunch guidelines are still evolving, and new school breakfast guidelines will take effect over the summer, Pyper said.
Parents and board members have asked whether the school district could buy more food from local sources.
A significant number of foods served in Tacoma schools already come from throughout Washington state. The districts supplier, Food Services of America, serves more than 100 other Washington school districts through a purchasing co-operative.
The company buys fruit from Wenatchee, mushrooms from Olympia, potatoes from Eastern Washington and the Skagit Valley, and vegetables from Walla Walla.
The cooperative gives us buying power, and allows us to get the best possible prices, said Steve Demel, Tacomas purchasing manager.
School district attorney Shannon McMinimee said small farmers and food processors may struggle to meet state and federal standards that govern food served to school children. Those standards cover everything from agricultural practices to food storage. But she said more small farmers are working to obtain the necessary certification.
The sheer numbers needed to supply a district as large as Tacoma also work against the small producer, officials said.
Tacoma purchases over 4 million cartons of milk a year, said Paul Scott, manager of nutrition services. It has to be delivered twice a week. That takes a big supplier.
Superintendent Carla Santorno suggested a feasibility study be done to explore using small local suppliers for a pilot program in two or three Tacoma schools. And board member Debbie Winskill said the district could ask state legislators if some barriers to using local food producers could be removed.
District staff have also explored one suggestion for saving money: outsourcing the school lunch program to a private company.
They met with three vendors that serve school districts nationwide. But Demel said none offered a magical solution that would surpass what the district is already doing.
FREE LUNCHES INCREASING
Among the states 10 largest school districts, Tacoma had the highest percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches during the 2010-11 school year, according to a report to the board.
The figure was 60 percent in Tacoma, compared to nearly 56 percent in Spokane, the next highest. Eligibility for the program has grown in Tacoma over the past six years, the report said. It was about 62 percent in October 2012.
Kids are shifting from paid lunch to reduced-price meals, and from reduced-price to free lunch eligibility, said district finance director Patricia Luat.
Last year, Tacomas school lunch program, like many around the country, operated at a loss of $433,663, or about 10 cents for every meal served.
The district has not raised meal prices in more than seven years. It charges $2.50 for elementary school lunches, compared to an average of $2.55 in surrounding districts.
Adding the extra nickel to paid lunch prices would raise only about $31,000, Luat said. Thats because so many Tacoma students dont pay full price for lunch. Meal prices would have to increase significantly to make up for the programs loss, she added.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635