Quinoa is in, corn dogs are out, on Palo Alto's school-lunch menus | August 16, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 16, 2013

Quinoa is in, corn dogs are out, on Palo Alto's school-lunch menus

After parent push for fresher fare, district moves cautiously on reform

by Chris Kenrick

Prices are up by a quarter or two, but food will be fresher in school lunch programs across Palo Alto this fall.

Dishes such as quinoa-edamame salad and sushi are set to replace old standbys like corn dogs and "Bosco Sticks" (cheese wrapped in dough).

Officials hope the healthier food will boost participation in the lunch program, now used by about one in five Palo Alto students.

"The vegetarian options are excellent," said Priya Abani-Doke, mother of a second-grader and a kindergartner at Hoover Elementary School. She was among 300 parents and students who sampled prospective menu items Friday, Aug. 9, at a "tasting day" at JLS Middle School.

"I never considered buying a school lunch before — I always packed the lunch — but now we'll try it."

The lunch initiative is a result of persistent lobbying by parents and a cautious, poll-tested approach by the Palo Alto school district, whose last venture into healthier lunches in 2005 led to budget deficits in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Back then, parents also had lobbied for fresher choices. The district's food-service contractor at that time, Chartwells, blamed failure of the effort on the high cost of paying the district's 20-plus food-service staff members, which it said consumed 76 cents out of every dollar in program revenue.

Since then, the program deficit has been whittled down to break-even, and a new crop of parents is seeking healthier menus.

"The landscape and even the mindset of parents on what they want their kids to eat has changed," said Rebecca Scholl, mother of four Palo Alto students who has led the drive for reform.

Scholl was raised in France, where students traditionally go home for lunch or sit down to a complete noon meal prepared by school cooks. For the past two years she's spearheaded an October "Tasting Week" in Palo Alto schools, bringing in top chefs for cooking and tasting demonstrations.

"In an ideal world we'd have a real lunchtime — not just 40 minutes — and we'd have kids sitting down to eat, not standing," said Scholl, who believes "there's a strong tie between food and mental health."

She and others have lobbied for at least two years for fresher, healthier lunch options.

Burned before, the district has proceeded cautiously, mindful that new selections must retain or boost participation in the lunch program, not drive students away.

At Friday's JLS tasting day, kids were asked to vote on the upcoming fall selections — which included turkey burgers, black bean/sweet potato salad, vegetable lasagna and chicken and vegetable potstickers — after sampling them.

"We can respond to their preferences in our September menu," said Alva Spence, who was tallying the votes. Spence, an employee of the food-service management company Sodexo, manages Palo Alto's lunch program.

"I've already had one girl come up and ask, 'Where are the Bosco Sticks?'" Spence said. "The foods that were more processed are coming out of the menu, but maybe we'll bring them back once a month or so."

A May poll of Palo Alto's K-12 parents suggested families would be willing to pay up to 50 cents more per school lunch (from $3.75 to $4.25) — and use the service more often — if more locally produced, organic items were offered.

Parents also expressed preference for an online pre-ordering system, with nearly 60 percent saying they would use online pre-ordering "on a regular basis" if it were available.

As a result, elementary school families will see lunch prices go from $3.75 to $4.25. Prices will remain the same — free or 40 cents — for the 9 percent of district students whose family income qualifies them for the federal free-and-reduced-price lunch program.

Officials said they're researching online pre-ordering systems and plan to implement one sometime in the fall.

At middle schools and high schools — except for Terman Middle School — lunch prices will go from $4.25 to $4.50, enough to cover new menu items and other recent initiatives such as occasional barbecues at Gunn High School.

Staff members will prepare lunches in school kitchens, which exist in all secondary schools, although the Terman kitchen is under renovation.

At Terman, by request of the school's PTA, the outside vendor Choice Lunch will provide online ordering and a multitude of hot and cold entrees at a price ranging from $5.25 to $6.40, said Cathy Mak, the district's chief business official, who supervises the lunch program.

"We're making a lot of changes this year," Mak said. "Some of it is trial and error, and we'll be making adjustments along the way."

Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he'd provide regular reports on the food-service budget to the Board of Education.

Thanking the parent lobbyists and PTA, Skelly said last week: "We've been for six or seven years looking at this from a cost basis, and now we're in a situation, thanks to the cafeteria staff work, where we've increased the amount of customers, so our mind can shift from cost control to enhancing services."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 16, 2013 at 9:42 am

With the ethnic diversity we have in Palo Alto, our schools can only offer a very limited choice which is unlikely to suit all cultures.

Saying that, I remember my school days when there was very limited choice and bringing lunch from home was not allowed. It did mean that we all learned to eat what we were given or go hungry. The food was not that bad although we all complained, but I don't remember anyone being hungry or being obese either.

Posted by Brian, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 16, 2013 at 10:55 am

The main reason we don't use the lunch program is there is a lot of trash associated with it. I like the move to healthier food. My son might not.

Posted by Nutrition First, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 16, 2013 at 11:23 am

Dr. Skelly was wrong (as is everyone else thinking the way he does) in focusing on "cost control". Everything has a cost. Your health is your true wealth; consequently, when you are faced with crappy food devoid of nutrients simply to control costs, everyone is a loser.

It is possible to provide good nutritious food at an affordable price but the desire to make it happen by a dedicated group of people is necessary to reach this end. I don't think that "Bosco Sticks"and their like are really the kind of foods we should be feeding our children if we want to provide their brains with adequate fuel to learn well.
Unfortunately, I would guess that a good percentage of children using the school lunch program are from the less financially well-endowed families hence those children receiving the free or reduced cost (don't know if this is a option) lunches suffer the most. Thanks to those that have helped make even this small improvement a reality.

I am sure that the kids will learn to love edamame!

Posted by Keep-Costs-Low!, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 16, 2013 at 11:55 am

> Dr. Skelly was wrong (as is everyone else thinking the way he
> does) in focusing on "cost control"

How absurd! Of course the Superintendent of Education needs to be concerned about cost control, as should every taxpayer--who funds this district.

The cavalier attitude that money is no object, and someone else can pay the bill is clearly a cancer that has infested the nation. Expecting the District to spend $10-$20/meal is crazy-talk. The District has not been able to control costs in its food-service program, in large part, because of the high cost of labor in this department.

Posted by Diane, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Rebecca Scholl has been tireless in her leadership of and commitment to changing PAUSD's food service. Congratulations and heartfelt thanks to Rebecca and the dozens of parents she has engaged in this effort during the last two years. Real, fresh food, sustainably grown and locally sourced whenever possible, makes for healthier kids, better school performance and a more resilient community.

Posted by Pamela, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 16, 2013 at 10:15 pm

I agree with Rebecca that sitting down for a meal and not standing in a hallway (especially) in middle schools is a civilized way of nourishing ones mind and body. Don't all of the schools have cafeteria and or cafetorium to sit and eat properly as well as contain the mess of eating in a hallway. Perhaps the janitors can rally around keeping the students in the cafeteria for meals albeit school or home made lunch in order to keep the campus cleaner. Just saying!
Thanks Rebecca for always putting your best foot forward and thinking about all of our children not to say that other parents aren't but some how that sweet French accent made a difference.

Posted by Ap parent, a resident of JLS Middle School
on Aug 18, 2013 at 9:07 pm

I, too, thank Rebecca for her persistence and caring. The food should be healthy AND taste good, and this tasting event showed the dedication to achieving both.

Unfortunately, while all the schools do have cafeteria rooms, they are usually mulipurpose rooms. Consequently, they never have tables set up, and places for the kids to eat at a table are few.

I was at JLS one muddy day last year during lunch, and had to step around clusters of students huddled on the dirty floors, nowhere better to eat. It was like something from the third world. (JLS flooded every winter so the floors were always filthy when it rained.)

So that aspect has a ways to go. But kudos for tackling the food freshness and healthiness!

Posted by Wendy, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 21, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Thanks to everyone who is spearheading this effort. I think going with more nutritious, organic, meals is great. I have one daughter who would never eat the lunches at school and one daughter who can't resist. So, knowing she is eating better lunches at school is great!!!!

Posted by Michaelquiek, a resident of Addison School
on Jun 6, 2017 at 12:14 am

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