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Evolving with regulations, Los Altos' school lunch programs retain local ties


Courtesy of USDA
Federal and state mandates require that school districts load school lunches with fruits, vegetables and whole grains. But the salad bars added to modern school cafeterias, above, don’t exist in the Los Altos School District, which is cafeteria-free for elementary and middle schools.

The landscape of school lunches has shifted across Los Altos in recent years, as the parent-run, all-volunteer lunch program has had to professionalize from an organized restaurant delivery service to a catered, federally compliant nutritional edifice.

The rules continue to change – this year pastas and pizza dough must qualify as “whole grain” as the school district works with vendors to assure compliance with federal and state guidelines.

Los Altos School District Assistant Superintendent Randy Kenyon said the district issued a request for proposals and has been assessing three vendors – all veteran providers for the district – in light of tightening restrictions on food preparation. Although each school makes an independent choice for food providers, the district assists in managing contracts and nutritional standards.

“We at the district are providing overall guidance and helping the process along,” he said. “We’ve hired a nutritionist to review all of the menu offerings and make sure that they’re compliant with guidelines, and we negotiate the contracts on behalf of the schools.”

A program in transition

None of Los Altos’ elementary schools or juniors highs has a cafeteria, so meals available for purchase arrive ready to eat from catering vendors. A decade ago, parent volunteers coordinated with local restaurants to provide a different hot meal for each school day, but that program didn’t stand up to federal food-handling and nutrition requirements. Today, the district uses a handful of vendors at all of its schools, and parent volunteers and students taste test as part of the selection process.

All of Los Altos’ schools serve students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, and those students participate in the same lunch program as everyone else, using a different payment structure.

Loyola School parent Faye Tsai remembers the local restaurant era –including the Chef Chu’s lunches that used to be on the menu – and the transition to a vendor. Her fifth-grade daughter and third-grade son eat a mix of home-prepared and school-purchased lunches, and Tsai co-chairs the school’s hot-lunch program this year. Her daughter was slow to take to the pre-prepared foods, which were neatly packaged but didn’t necessarily tickle the taste buds.

“My son, on the other hand, said, ‘I’ll just eat the hamburger,’ and that was it,” Tsai said.

As she started to volunteer with the food program, Tsai learned more about why the food tasted the way it did. Nutrition requirements and health regulations can have stark effects on taste – soy cheese on pizza, anyone?

“I grew up in the days when we had a cafeteria and they cooked the food on-site,” she said. “The ladies wore gloves, and it was always warm – the kids always knew what was good. It wasn’t gourmet, but it was decent. To come to the point where we’re having packaged food that is shrink-wrapped and sometimes tasting horrible – I wondered, how did we get there?”

Kim Albright, PTA volunteer at Egan Junior High School, said that as parents try to meet the rules while preserving flavor, “it’s really about what the students will eat. It doesn’t do us any good to order organic meals if they’ll all be thrown out and the kids are hungry at the end of the day. We do our best to meet their taste buds so that they’ll actually eat.”

Although many of the federal regulations target obesity by cutting calories, Albright said the local parent community “gets more concerned that there isn’t enough food for their growing children who are doing sports after school and are very, very active. If children don’t like it, they’re not going to eat it. At school, parents aren’t able to influence (eating habits), so it has to be something they’ll enjoy.”

Taste versus numbers

As she learned more about requirements for salt, whole wheat, calories and fat, Tsai got a handle on the conflicting values of taste versus numbers.

“It’s so nutritious that the kids are throwing it away,” she said. “(The providers) are trying very hard to make it taste good, but they don’t add much salt and fat.”

Tsai – like other local parents interviewed for this story – fundamentally questioned the idea that school lunches in Los Altos should be governed so stringently by anti-obesity measures.

“We’re jumping through all these hurdles to make sure this is nutritious, but it could all be for naught,” she said. “Students have one meal with the school and then they go home, and home can provide whatever they want. The whole values system, the way you live your life – your health and exercise, as well as diet – that is going to come from the parent.”

Tsai thinks that nutrition education probably needs to be aimed straight at parents, not brute-forced into young people’s lunch bags.

“It’s frustrating, because when you work in this lunch program that’s supposed to be nutritionally balanced, you just don’t see the impact,” she said.

Albright added that during the learning process, it was like the “government was mandating more processed, chemical-based foods” to circumvent the calorie mandate.

“It was trying to say all children are obese and we have an obesity problem,” she said. “The reality is that at Egan, there are probably more children not eating enough.”

A hot idea

Albright has had three children pass through Egan’s lunch program, and Santa Rita’s before that.

Her oldest daughter, who just graduated from Los Altos High, ate at Santa Rita during the era when a full-sized, cheese-topped slice of pizza and a chocolate chip cookie sometimes constituted lunch.

In the days before parents expanded the lunch program into delivered restaurant meals or catering from vendors, children mostly relied on packed-at-home meals – even if that meant peanut butter and jelly five days a week for some working families.

“We’re a group of parents that wanted our kids to have a hot lunch as opposed to a sandwich,” Albright said. “That was the original idea – wouldn’t this be a great service? I think it tastes better and, if children eat, they have the energy to focus better.”

Vendors prepare and seal hot lunches at their catering kitchen, and then transport them to the school using warming ovens in a delivery truck. In addition to hot entrées, the schools offer cold sandwiches and salads. Prices hover in the $5-$6 range for most dishes at most schools.

Pasta Market, the local restaurant and catering service based at the intersection of El Camino Real and San Antonio Road, has proven to be a local favorite. As a caterer, it branches out beyond Italian dishes to prepare everything from sushi to Indian food. The schools use a variety of smaller local and regional vendors rather than consolidating with one large operation. Tsai said the school communities have different tastes, to some extent, but they also value caterers that might be too small – as Pasta Market is – to serve the entire district.

Albright said that in addition to getting a fair-priced lunch from Pasta Market, Egan has been able to source all of its fruit locally from DeMartini Orchard at a great price.

“At least for Egan and Blach, it’s really the community giving back to the school,” she said of working with local vendors.

Parents order meals in bulk, toggling selections for a month or more at a time. At Loyola, anywhere from a quarter to a half of the school eats the catered lunches on a given day and pizza days see a surge on just about every campus.

“I’m a stay-at-home mom, and the people who really use the service a lot are the working moms,” said Tsai, whose kids often tote in leftovers from the previous night’s dinner in a specially made Tupperware container to keep them warm. “But I order when I can find meals that they’ll both eat happily – that’s probably about 25 percent of the time.”

Ever wonder what happens on the day a make-at-home lunch gets forgotten? The schools have an “emergency lunch” procedure, where the office calls to get permission on what and whether to serve the child. If a parent can’t be reached, the ultimate backup is a bowl of cold cereal.

Schools like Loyola need approximately 40 parent volunteers, who work on a rotating basis setting up tables and supplies and then distributing meals. They’re skilled at the art of how to staff the lunch program to fit bell schedules and grade levels. Pizza day, of course, requires all hands on deck.

“It’s a huge part of the success of this lunch program – and if we don’t get the volunteers, it’s the kids that suffer, because they have to wait for their lunch,” Tsai said. “Parents don’t all realize this, but volunteering is really important. When you make the lunch go smoothly, the kids’ days go smoothly.”

Albright noted that for middle-school parents, there are fewer opportunities to volunteer in the classroom and watch their children grow, so the lunch program can be a special window into school life.

“Hot lunch is the time you can be on campus and watch the dynamics,” she said. “It’s just a really, really exciting time for your child, and you end up realizing what wonderful programs they have at Egan. It’s like the last opportunity before they head off to high school.”

Tips from PTA moms for a hot lunch

• Heat meal in a bowl that seals well and then tuck it – on its own – inside an insulated lunch bag. Pack cold items in a second insulated bag.

• Remember that students share. Sending a mini chocolate with lunch? Maybe pack two.

• Eating a special diet at home? Albright recommends Nom Nom Paleo (nomnompaleo.com) as a blog (and book) with lunch ideas for those who don’t eat grain or have eliminated other ingredients from their diet.

- This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Spot Pizza, a longtime provider of pizza at local school lunches, is not adding a whole wheat crust option at this time and will not be the pizza vendor this school year. 

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