Chartwells has improved nutritional quality of food, but still ways to go

Before the school district contracted current food service operator Chartwells and constructed the new high school cafeteria, some of the most popular lunch items included candy bars, ice cream, slushies and Little Debbie snacks. “After we moved into the new cafeteria the second semester, we lost $89,000 in [a la carte] income [compared to the old program]. That’s how much junk [students] were buying downstairs,” Doyle Forster, the district’s food service director and Chartwells employee, said. Four years later, most of that junk food is gone: food choices have greatly expanded and a number of healthy, well-balanced meals are available, including wraps, pasta, cold sandwiches and salads, but less healthy choices still remain. The a la carte line caters several items that do not meet the standards for government subsidies: fried items, such as chicken strips, tater tots and curly fries; calzones and sandwiches, stuffed with mostly just cheese and meat; and foods with added sugars, such as cookies and Pop Tarts. Nearly 500 servings of fries and 700 sandwiches were sold in the 5-day school week beginning January 5th. Even some meals that qualify for reimbursement under the National School Lunch Act, which does not limit the total number of calories, sodium or cholesterol, are not especially healthy: not including sour cream, milk or rice, nachos with cheddar sauce and refried beans have over 700 calories, 900 milligrams of sodium and 40 grams of fat. By comparison, a Big Mac has fewer calories and less fat. Under the Act, schools receive subsidies for each complete meal that derives no more than 30 percent of its calories from fat and no more than 10 percent from saturated fat. It must also provide at least one-third of the Recommended Daily Allowances for Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories. In all, the government program is cost-effective and profitable for schools. Forster said that Chartwells receives 20 to 30 cents more per meal from the subsidized meals than from a la carte items. “We get more money selling the reimbursable meals than the [a la carte] meals,” Forster said. “That’s why you want to sell the reimbursable meals first. We condensed [the a la carte] all into one area, so if [students] really, really want it, they have to stand in line forever. Sometimes, on chicken strip day, there’s a line all the way out into the cafeteria. That’s what we wanted. We wanted them to be impatient and just bypass that line and go get reimbursable meals.” Then why does the cafeteria continue to sell noticeably unhealthy a la carte items? According to Forster, it all comes down to student choice. If the a la carte line were removed, he is convinced that all the students normally purchasing a la carte items would choose to forgo eating anything, and for the school budget and those students, something is better than nothing. Only a limited number would choose to eat the federally subsidized meals. “I’ve been doing [food service] for 25 years,” Forster said. “We have delicious, homemade lasagnas and pasta bars, and [the students] won’t hardly touch it. You give them pizza dunkers and they go crazy.” But within the parameters of the current program alone, Chartwells has made improvements to the nutritional quality of the food. Forster said that he has switched to trans fat-free oils. The catch: they cost five times as much. The bread is 100 percent whole wheat, and the pizza has a whole wheat crust, topped with low-fat cheese. All are not required by any laws or regulations. “You can’t do much more to your programs,” Forster said. “You’re here–you just have to level off and keep going.” Expansion into organic or local produce would simply not be feasible in Iowa, he explained, citing transportation costs and a limited growing season. The school food program is still not completely healthy, but this is an issue that resounds at all levels, national and local. Even with current economic woes forcing many school food programs to focus primarily on staying afloat and breaking even, the nutritional choices of teens may be an even greater concern.