As the Richfield School District has expanded its food offerings in recent years, students have responded by eating more school food.
An average of 47 percent of students eat school breakfast each day, an increase of 7 percentage points over last year. Likewise, more students are eating school lunch, too – at a rate of about 71 percent, an uptick of 8 percentage points.
The district’s director of food and nutrition, Pam Haupt, presented those figures during a March 7 presentation to the Richfield School Board as the district acknowledged the School Nutrition Association’s National School Breakfast Week. Overall, the district is serving 5 percent more meals this school year than last, despite a drop in enrollment, Haupt noted.
The increase is no accident. Since Haupt took over the district’s nutrition department in late 2014, menus have changed, equipment has been added and new programs have been implemented. Those include menu changes, offerings such as breakfast kiosks, and a program allowing the youngest students to eat breakfast in the classroom.
The menu changes have included an increased emphasis on whole grains and fruits and vegetables, while items such as fruit juice are becoming more scarce. But it’s not just what is offered; it’s how it’s offered.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are being placed at the front of meal lines so that students fill their trays with those items first, leaving less room for the less wholesome offerings, Haupt explained. At the same time, nutrition staff are trying to provide students more freedom in their food choices, because that increases the odds they will actually eat what they put on their trays, she said.
“The more choice, especially with fresh fruits and vegetables that we can offer, it broadens their ability to choose something different that they are gonna consume,” Haupt said.
The mission comes with a hands-off approach.
“There’s no pressure,” Haupt said. “They don’t have to eat the whole thing. No one’s watching if they take one bite and don’t like it.”
To continue emphasizing roughage in students’ diets, the district hopes to renew a $137,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that funds snack offerings of fruits and vegetables.
Since receiving the grant last year, the district has served $50,000 worth of fruits and vegetables, according to Haupt. The grant’s purpose is to expose those foods to students at a young age in hopes they form healthy lifelong eating habits. The grant also helps tide students over until lunch – especially those unfortunate enough to be assigned a late lunch period.
“I used to call it the curse of last lunch,” Haupt said.
To help students begin their day with full stomachs, Richfield High School established a breakfast kiosk to be used at locations in the building where access to the regular serving lines is inconvenient. Breakfast was already free to all district students, and Haupt credits the kiosk for serving an additional 150-225 breakfasts per day.
“Pretty much from the first day, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Haupt said.
Breakfast kiosks have been added to STEM School and Sheridan Elementary with the help of a grant from General Mills, she noted, allowing those schools to each serve an additional 110-190 students per day.
Another new measure, offering breakfast in the classroom for pre-kindergartners through second-graders at Centennial Elementary, “has been one of the great solutions” at the school, Haupt said.
But just because food is served doesn’t necessarily mean it is consumed, Boardmember Tim Pollis pointed out, asking how that factor is measured. Haupt assured Pollis that by watching what students are throwing away, she is satisfied they are eating what they put on their tray.
“They call me the garbage patrol,” Haupt said.
Another way to make sure students are getting proper nutrition is promoting the free-and-reduced lunch program, which is designed to aid low-income families. About 63 percent of the district’s student population receives the benefit.
The district works to enroll as many qualifying families into the program as possible, but Boardmember Crystal Brakke wondered how much the stigma of the subsidy might keep the numbers down. Haupt explained that there are no separate lines for students receiving the benefit and that they are not outwardly identified in any other way.
She added that the nutrition department asks all families to fill out the paperwork for the program to reduce any stigma associated with that task.
Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RISunCurrent.