Austin ISD encourages more parents not to pack a lunch to improve school meals

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — If fewer kids bring lunch from home, Austin ISD says it can improve the quality of ingredients it uses to prepare breakfast and lunch across the entire district.

Wednesday, the district’s food truck hit the road for the first time this school year. Its first stop is McCallum High School, where students will have the option of grass-fed burgers, among other bites.

The nutrition and food services department is working toward a goal of using only grass-fed beef in every school cafeteria, plus organic produce and milk. But in order to do that, it needs more students to eat the food kitchen employees fix every day.

This school year the district is encouraging parents not to pack a lunch.

“The more meals we serve, the more funding we have to invest in the quality of our program,” said Anneliese Tanner, AISD’s executive director of food service and warehouse operations.

It comes down to federal funding through the National School Lunch Program; school districts are reimbursed on a per-student basis, whether kids buy lunch or receive free or reduced-price meals.

Tanner said that if kids who don’t normally eat school lunch do so once a week, the district can provide grass-fed beef to all campuses. If they eat a school lunch twice a week, it can provide organic produce, and if they eat three times a week, all students district-wide will get organic milk.

In total, the district needs half of its students to eat the breakfast its kitchens provide and three-quarters to eat lunch. Last year about a third ate school breakfast and about half ate school lunch.

Since Tanner’s department started outreach efforts in the spring, they’ve seen more kids eating with them. So far this school year, they’re serving about 3,000 more kids.

“It’s a long-term process, just like anything,” Tanner said. “We are seeing our participation increase, and so we’re able to start taking steps on all three of those goals.”

One reason parents say their kids don’t eat school lunch is the wait in line to pick up their trays. Students have a limited amount of time during the break, and many would rather spend it with friends than standing in line.

Tanner said the district has heard those concerns and is working to address them. At some schools, that means adding additional lines; in others it means making cafeteria food available in more places than just the cafeteria.

The district also added schools this year under its community eligibility provision, which provides a free meal to every student in the school without having to fill out applications. That way, students are not stopping at the register and the line moves more quickly.

It takes time, Tanner said, to find the right solution for every campus, especially when they’re introducing things like custom-made salads for students.

“Having scratch-made foods or making salads for the kids so that they have the freshest vegetables and freshest food does take some time, and it’s a little bit of a culture change to incorporate that into the dining environment.”

The district is focusing on more than just whether ingredients are organic, too. In February, AISD became the first school district in Texas to sign on to the Good Food Purchasing Program, a nationwide initiative to encourage schools to consider five elements when buying food: nutrition, environmental sustainability, local economy impact, animal welfare and fair labor.

It all adds up to a major shift in the conventions of school lunches, Tanner said. “We are taking a big focus on how our food is grown and produced.”

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