Jordan School District using technology, local produce to beef up school lunch

Published: Tuesday, July 30 2013 6:28 p.m. MDT

Jason Holgate, left, and Haden Bishop check out the school lunch app, used by Jordan School District, at Fox Hollow Elementary in West Jordan, Tuesday, July 30, 2013.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

WEST JORDAN — Just before 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, the first students at Fox Hollow Elementary began trickling into the school cafeteria.

Within minutes, tables were filled with the din of frenzied conversation and plastic lunch trays sporting a feast of corn dog bites, french fries, milk and assorted fruits and vegetables.

Amidst the hubbub, sixth-grade students Jason Holgate and Haden Bishop flicked through the pages of an iPad app breaking down Tuesday's menu options at Fox Hollow and checking what the rest of the week had in store.

"Just the touch of a button and it tells you how many carbs, fat, protein and sodium," Holgate said while browsing the menu items.

The app, produced by developer Nutrislice and rolling out this year at all Jordan District schools, is the first of its kind in Utah and provides detailed school-by-school information to parents and students on the month's lunch and breakfast offerings.

In addition to the nutritional information described by Holgate, the app shows pictures of the various menu items; a description; a list of potential allergens like peanuts, eggs, soy or milk; and in time will display the local farm that provided the day's fresh produce.

Bishop, who said he eats school lunch about half the time, said the app lets him look ahead and decide when to bring food from home.

"I can look and see what days my favorite food is here," he said. "(My parents and I) have been talking about whether it's worth it and I think it is because it's really accessible and easy to use."

The app, which is free for parents, cost the district roughly $2,500 for a pilot program with the year-round elementary schools and $8,000 to maintain the app district-wide for a full academic year, district dietitian Katie Bastian said.

It is one of several initiatives undertaken by Jordan District this year to both improve communication with parents on school lunch offerings as well as encourage healthy eating habits in children.

Fresh farm produce

In addition to the school menu app, district nutrition officials are working with area farmers to provide fresh produce during Utah's growing season. The district is also planning two Utah's Own days, one in the fall and one in spring, in which every menu item district-wide will be provided by local suppliers.

"Because of Utah’s growing season, it’s not feasible to get everything that we do all year-round local," Bastian said. "It’s dependent on the growing season, but they’ve committed certain produce items for us from the beginning of August through about October."

Last year, schools were hit by a set of federal guidelines aimed at improving student health. The guidelines, part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, emphasized fruits and vegetables while putting a cap on portion sizes for meats, grains and sweets.

The guidelines drew criticism nationwide, with students complaining of empty stomachs and administrators concerned about increased amounts of wasted, costly produce.

Portion size mandates were ultimately relaxed, but Bastian said since last year children have adjusted to the healthier meals and schools have learned how to cater menus to student tastes.

"It was definitely a process of learning this past year, but our focus this year is going to be on student participation and increasing the things that they like and are healthy for them," Bastian said.

Resolving confusion

But there is still some confusion on what is being served in schools, Bastian said, with district dietitians frequently yielding calls from concerned parents. She said the app is intended to address those concerns by providing as much information as possible in an easy-to-use format, and so far feedback from parents has been positive.

"With the new regulations that came out last year, the healthier school lunches, parents have some idea but not the whole idea," Bastian said. "This is a good way to get exactly what’s being served to your students every single day without every person having to call our office and talk to us personally, so I think it’s getting the word out to the public much more efficiently."

She said the new guidelines, and school lunch in general, are ultimately geared at teaching healthy living habits to children. She gave the example of Tuesday's entree at Fox Hollow, corn dog bites, that are now baked turkey dogs with a whole wheat breading as opposed to the traditional fried convenience store variety.

That thinking extends to the farm-to-school program, she said, as local produce arrives quicker, fresher and tastes better.

It also saves the district money. Bastian didn't have exact figures since the arrangements with local farmers are still being made, but she gave the example of a single case of raspberries which costs $21 when purchased directly from a local grower compared to the $38 bill the district would receive from a wholesale distributor.

"The more fruits and vegetables I can get them to take, the better for us and for them," she said. "Just giving them more exposure here, I hope it will help them with their well-being even outside of school."

Jana Cruz, director of Nutrition Services for Jordan School District, said she spent Monday out in the fields with a local farmer checking the year's crop and planning a schedule for when delivery can begin. Arrangements have been made with four local farming operations, she said, with more expected before the prime harvest season.

"We really are focused on the students and piquing their interests so they can see healthy choices taste great," she said.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

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