SALT LAKE CITY — Utah schools succeed at providing healthy lunches, but $40.2 million worth of food service equipment is required in the state to improve efficiency, according to a national report.
The report, released last month by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found that 95 percent of Utah school districts need more lunchroom equipment to serve nutritious food, and 49 percent of districts are in need of kitchen infrastructure changes in at least one school.
Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids Safe and Healthful Food Project, said the report is good news because the majority of U.S. schools are successfully providing healthy meals to their students. But she said it also highlights the challenges that many districts face in regards to kitchen equipment and food preparation.
Those facility needs don't mean the difference between healthy and unhealthy meals, Donze Black said, but they reflect that investment in school kitchens could lead to more efficient and effective food service.
"It isn't an all or nothing game," she said of Utah's $40 million need. "Incremental steps could be very instrumental in moving things forward."
The report was based on a survey of school lunch administrators, looking at facility needs in complying with the updated meal guidelines under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
That law, a major initiative of first lady Michelle Obama, established updated nutritional standards for the National School Lunch Program and set limits on portion sizes and calorie counts while encouraging the use of fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains.
The Pew report found Utah to be ahead of the national rate, with 86 percent of school districts successfully serving healthy meals. But local officials participating in the survey reported a need for equipment like industrial scales to weigh bulk ingredients, utility carts, heated cabinets for storing prepared food, and greater physical space in school kitchens.
The report also found that only 35 percent of Utah school districts set aside funds in their annual budgets for kitchen equipment upgrades and purchases.
"It's not necessarily an unmet need," Donze Black said.
Katie Bastian, a registered dietitian in the Jordan School District, said the district allocates roughly $200,000 each year for kitchen upkeep and maintenance.
"There’s always bigger and better things that we want," she said, "but I think, for the most part, we do a good job of keeping the kitchens running."
Bastian said Jordan District was positioned ahead of the curve when the new lunch guidelines were enacted. The district, like many in Utah, had already begun incorporating whole grain recipes into school menus, and administrators resisted a trend that saw many school districts around the country downsizing their kitchens and relying on meals that were prepared beforehand.
"Jordan never remodeled their kitchens in that fashion," she said. "We’ve always cooked a lot from scratch."
The new lunch guidelines stem from a growing concern over childhood obesity, with many seeing schools as ground zero to teach healthy living habits to children.
Kathleen Britton, director of child nutrition programs for the State Office of Education, said teaching students to live and eat healthy requires a combination of healthy school lunches and exposure to nutritious foods at home.
"I think it’s a collaboration between the home and the school," Britton said.
Before the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed, the district had already begun increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables offered and had abandoned fryers in favor of baking or steaming items, Bastian said.
"I know other school districts in Utah were moving in that direction," she said. "The guidelines just kind of pushed everything along."
Britton said the State Office of Education conducts trainings throughout the state to help schools with the transition to the new guidelines. Utah was also recently awarded a $282,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase kitchen equipment.
Britton said the number of schools that are able to receive a portion of the grant will depend on their needs, but she added that the funding will likely go toward the purchase of ovens and heated cabinets.
"We are in the process of making applications available through a competitive grant," Britton said. "Each school district, their needs are a little bit different."
The new guidelines generated some backlash at the time of their adoption, including parents concerned about increased lunch prices, students complaining of insufficient portions and educators worried about increased food waste.
Since the initial rollout, school nutritionists have learned from the feedback and developed menus that appeal to students while also staying within the healthy guidelines, Bastian said.
"We can look outside the box a little bit because we understand them better," she said.
Britton said most of Utah's schools had begun moving toward healthy options before the law was changed, and she commended educators for their work to continue adjusting their menus.
"I think that the schools have adjusted really well, and they’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work with the kids," Britton said.