Education

Pre-packaged salads, other lunch options cut for Tacoma students as budget deficits loom

No lunch money? Students are offered a hot meal anyway

With the passage of the "Hunger-Free Bill of Rights" last year, districts are required to provide students with a USDA-approved meal regardless of their ability to pay.
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With the passage of the "Hunger-Free Bill of Rights" last year, districts are required to provide students with a USDA-approved meal regardless of their ability to pay.

Tacoma students have fewer choices when it comes to what they want to eat for lunch at school.

Tacoma Public Schools rolled out a new pilot menu on Feb. 1 that narrows lunch options. The reductions are a result of district departments searching for ways combat budget deficits.

The revised menu focuses on the “most popular and lower-average-cost entrees” as a way to better control both waste and cost, said Alicia Lawver, strategic planner and policy manager for the district.

That means no more pre-packaged salads for all grade levels. Hot dogs and burritos also were cut from the menu.

Some parents have noted the removal of pre-packaged salads and expressed concern about the lack of healthful options for students.

District officials said that unlimited fresh fruits and vegetables will remain available to all students, and students can assemble their own salads with the offerings provided. Only salads that were prepared in advance by kitchen staff were cut from the menu.

“Pre-packaged salads were the highest cost and least popular item, and often went to waste,” Lawver said.

Pre-packaged salads ranged from chicken sesame, ham and cheese, turkey and cheese, taco, and chef.

Costs varied per school but were about twice the cost of an average lunch entree, Lawver said. Lunch meals cost $2.75 for Tacoma elementary and middle grade students and $3.00 for high school students.

To reconfigure the menu, the district used lunch sales data from the beginning of the year and feedback from cooks about the most popular items. District officials will continue to track data in future months for any needed adjustments.

Previously, pre-packaged salads were offered to all grade levels and were part of the standard lunch offering to elementary students, along with a hot entree, a sandwich, a yogurt meal and unlimited fruits and vegetables.

Now, elementary meals include a hot entree and a second option that rotates: a yogurt meal for Monday, Wednesday and Friday, tuna or toasted cheese sandwiches for Tuesday and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for Thursdays.

Previously, middle and high school students were given about 20 options for lunches, including unlimited fruits and veggies. That has been reduced to 8 to 9 options daily.

To reduce food waste, there are already share tables in place at schools. Students place unwanted food they receive from their meals on the table for other students to pick up as they choose. Donating unused food can be difficult because the district does not have a central kitchen. How uneaten food is handled is an ongoing discussion, Lawver said.

The change comes at a time when Tacoma Public Schools is facing a budget deficit, expecting $30 million in cuts in the 2019-20 school year.

The district also faced mounting meal debt earlier this year. As of November, the district had accumulated $77,000 in meal debt.

“While the meal debt continues to increase, it is not increasing at as high a rate now that we’ve implemented automated phone calls to families with negative balances,” Lawver said.

SOTA, IDEA and SAMI schools are separate from the pilot menu and remain unchanged.

Tacoma school meal menus can be found at tacoma.healtheliving.net.

Allison Needles covers news in Puyallup, Sumner and Bonney Lake for The Puyallup Herald and education news for The News Tribune in Tacoma. She was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest.


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