Everyone who remembers school cafeteria lunches as a scoop of brown stuff and a dollop of gray stuff … should prepare for a change of mind about the the possibilities of gustatory experiences at Evanston public schools.

Meet Meghan Gibbons and the intrepid staff of District 202’s Nutrition Services.  Their $1.8 million operation provides an average of 1,200 lunch meals per day to four student cafeterias and one faculty/ staff dining room as well as catering for special functions at ETHS and 2,000 lunches for District 65. The high school also serves about 300 breakfasts per day.

“What we’ve done here, and it’s the secret to our success,” Ms. Gibbons told the District 202 School Board at a presentation earlier this year, “is taken meals that the students like and made them healthier.”  Nutrition Services conducts student taste tests at least once a month to keep in touch with student preferences.

“Students (at ETHS) have more than 15 main entrée options in every single cafeteria every single day,” said Ms. Gibbons.  In addition, there are at least ten fruit and vegetable offerings, and “we sell over 200 entrée salads every day, which I am very proud of.” 

The cafeteria serves name brand products such as Tyson, Land O’ Lakes, Pepperidge Farms and Frito-Lay. “The pasta we serve is a whole-grain pasta that has as much protein as a chicken breast,” Ms. Gibbons said. “It’s made with legumes. We use brown rice instead of white rice, whole grain breads. … Everywhere we can increase the nutrient density of a food, we do.

One major change in food offering that was made this year was “we changed to fries just two times a week,” said Ms. Gibbons. “The first few weeks were a little rough, but they adjusted very well.”

Additions to the menu are also always under consideration. 

“We’re taste-testing a hummus platter following winter break,” Ms. Gibbons told the RoundTable. “We’ll be making our own hummus using sunflower butter in place of tahini paste, which is very expensive and hard to come by in bulk.  
Stay tuned. …”

One challenge the Nutrition Services Department faces is that ETHS has open campus for juniors and seniors. This means that many students in those classes leave the building for lunch. “It’s hard to convince a junior or senior in high school to stay in and have a nutritious meal when they can go a half a block away and get McDonald’s Big Mac, fries and a giant Coke for about the same cost,” Ms. Gibbons pointed out.

Nutrition Services has seen an increase in the percentage of students applying for a free or reduced-cost lunch this year – to about 40 percent of the student population.  With this additional challenge, Nutrition Services struggles to make ends meet while providing healthy meals.

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Ms. Gibbons. Federal reimbursements have not kept pace with the cost of living. The federal government reimburses the school 26 cents for each fully paid meal, $2.19 for a “reduced” price lunch and $2.59 for a “free” lunch. 

“However, it costs my department over $3.50 a meal,” Ms. Gibbons said. She is also only able to spend $1 per meal for the food that goes into the District 65 lunches, while she has to meet strict United States Department of Agriculture guidelines about the components of a “reimbursable lunch.”

The Nutrition Services Department has a nearly $2 million budget, which is completely self-supporting and does not draw from the general fund of the District, said William Stafford, D202 chief financial officer.

Although the department’s portfolio of revenue from catering, a la carte, adult meals, District 65 lunches and vending machines sustains the program other challenges continue. 

“Commodity and entitlement dollars remain limited, a la carte sales have decreased as less healthful foods and beverages have been replaced by more healthful ones, which are perishable and  more costly,” Ms. Gibbons explained.

In 2010, Ms. Gibbons and her staff will have even more opportunity to impact student nutrition positively. Because of
the change to a four-day, longer-day summer school, lunch will now be served.
This  was not the case with the earlier summer-school schedule. Mr. Stafford says this change will be of particular advantage to at-risk students who attend summer school.

“The lunch they eat at school may be the only decent meal they get all day,” he told the RoundTable.

Maybe more than decent. Maybe even – dare one say – delicious?