School lunches sure aren't what they used to be. Gone are the frozen chicken fingers and canned vegetables. Instead, students can get a cup of coffee in the library, fresh zucchini with lunch and see their food prepared right in front of them.
At Dallastown Area School District, students are becoming more involved with what is offered for breakfast and lunch, according to Jim Dierolf, director of food services for the district. He's seen students' palettes and food interests change from your typical hot dogs and hamburgers to offerings such as chicken cordon bleu, which he said is what a class of third-graders requested most to be put on the menu last year.
It's for this reason that the district has been working with Chartwells, a provider of school meals based out of Elmhurst, Illinois, to give students a more robust menu. According to Aliza Stern, the mid-Atlantic dietician for Chartwells, the company customizes their menus based on their clients' preferences and the local vendors.
"We don't offer you one healthy lunch option and say take it or leave it," Dierolf said. Instead, the cafeteria will start to have "active" spots this year, where fresh food could be made right in front of students. By offering the students more options, Dierolf said, lunch becomes a teaching opportunity, allowing them to expose students to new things and experiment with their own healthy choices.
"Food has become popular, so naturally students are interested in knowing more about food," Stern said. "Their knowledge of food is growing, and their palettes are maturing, so we want to make sure our program is growing with them."
Two years ago the district opened a coffee shop located in the high school's library, where students can get coffee or small, healthy snacks while they're studying or before going to class. Dierolf said that it has really taken off, so this year the school decided to set up a section of the cafeteria that will be open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. for students to get food throughout the day.
Dierolf is still unsure of what it will be named but called it the "Wildcat Den" for now. The Wildcat Den would allow students to eat their meals on their own time. Many students are active with sports, band and other after-school activities, so extending the hours until 4 p.m. will allow students to grab food before practices or other activities.
Chartwells also has a website and mobile application called Nutrislice, where people can see items on the menu and read the nutrition facts, filter for allergies and see the calorie information. Dallastown students and parents can view the upcoming lunch menu, including any last-minute changes, at any time, at the tip of their fingers. Dierolf said this has helped school nurses, who need to know the nutrition facts for diabetic students.
Following Chartwells initiative, Dallastown also will be shopping locally for their fresh fruits and veggies and educating the students on where their food comes from. Dierolf said this is good for the environment too. By shopping locally, food doesn't need to be shipped long distances.
"If they start learning these habits in school, they'll choose healthy and local options when they're not in school, too," Direolf said.