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Every day, on average, about 350 third, fourth and fifth graders file through the cafeteria lunch line David Mindess Elementary School in Ashland, Mass.
With childhood obesity on the rise, there's a greater pressure on school lunch programs, including this one, to serve healthy food in schools.
An anti-junk food bill is making its way through the Massachusetts legislature.
But school lunch programs, like all programs and budget items in school systems, are feeling the dollar squeeze.
So we visited Ashland to find out how this one program balances all the needs.
Since last year, the average cost of producing one school lunch has jumped up more than 10 percent, from $2.63 per lunch to $2.90.
The National School Nutrition Association, which keeps track of the numbers, says healthy foods — milk, fruits and vegetables — have been hit by double-digit price increases.
It's tough and tight — and what makes it more difficult for school lunch programs — is that in most school districts in Massachusetts, including Ashland's, they are on their own and are funded without local tax dollars.
Yes, there is some state and federal money — in Ashland it's 27 cents a meal — which means the students and teachers who buy lunch are paying the vast majority of the costs.
Even so, fresh veggies and fruits are largely part of every lunch menu in Ashland. And as we found, the kids not only tolerate it or like it — they actually appear excited about lunch.
"What we're trying to do is move education into the cafeteria," says Lisa Beaudin, Director of Food and Nutrition Services in Ashland. Food and teaching kids, she says, are her passions.
"We really believe in educating the whole child. And part of that is teaching them to lead healthy lifestyles and make healthy choices because it doesn't matter if they can pass the MCAS if they can't get out of their chair, and they don't have a healthy lifestyle," Beaudin says.
How does that philosophy play out when you're trying to decide a week's worth of lunch menus?
"We're part of the national school lunch school program, so we have certain requirements we have to meet," she says. We have to offer five components to every lunch, which is a protein, a fluid milk, a vegetable and a grain. Now we're not part of the school budget, so we're basically running a restaurant on $2.25 a cover."
A "cover" is a meal in food service and restaurant lingo.
The $2.25 Ashland is charging is up 25 cents from last year to help cover rising costs.
The district purchases as much fresh food as the budget allows and also uses commodity foods federally available to every district, such as rice, pasta, canned fruit, and ground beef, Beaudin says.
"But you can't build your whole menu off that. Certainly the thing we're trying to do is teach children to eat fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grains."
So how do you do it?
"I've gone out and look for grant money, because that seems to be the only way I can offer them fresh fruit and vegetables every day."
The grant money from organizations such as the state Department of Public Health has allowed Beaudin, a former Boston chef, a little creative flourish when planning her menus.
Chicken cacciatore over pasta and Mexican meatloaf with mashed potatoes and sweet corn are a couple of examples from this month's menu. However, there are crowd pleasers, such as chicken nuggets — not deep fried — every Monday, and twice a week, whole wheat pizza, which was being served up the day we were there.
Back in the kitchen, the pizza smells great as cook Mary Stillwell took it out of the oven.
"Right now we're taking the five pizzas out that we're gonna start with in the first lunch, which will start in five minutes."
But the hot, popular meal on this day was tacos — and tacos you could load up.
Are the fresh ingredients, the lettuce and the other stuff you put on the tacos the kids can put on the tacos, is that a big factor?
"I think it's a big factor in that they can have it plain or as dressed up as they want," Stillwell says. "And then they have their choice of fresh fruit, salad, milk and a juice, and they all end up with a full plate with a big variety."
I noticed there are fresh apples out there, sliced up oranges.
"Sometimes we have bananas, watermelon, we try to make it a little different so they always have a choice of a fresh fruit, every day."
It's quite a change, Stillwell says. When she first started working at the Mindess School seven years ago, all fruit came canned, and the meals were largely frozen and packaged.
This day, those tacos and the rice and beans look irresistible, so I join the other 4th graders in line, I am the tallest kid there, .
[I'm running down the cafeteria line in the school. Can you tell my mouth is watering?
Would you like tacos or pizza?
Well come over here and take a look. On any given day I would say pizza, because I love pizza, but the taco looks good so I'm gonna have the taco. smooth transition Put a little cheese on, a few tomatoes, fresh shredded lettuce. Am I piling this up too high? Am I being a good student or overdoing it? (Time: 31s)]
With lunch tray in hand, we sit down in the crowded cafeteria with Ashland Schools Superintendent Richard Hoffmann. After taking my first bite, I ask him what's changed in recent years.
"Years ago, you could order $2 worth of French fries and nothing else. So we've changed the way we market it, the way we sell the food themselves, because we believe a healthy body translates into a healthy mind.
"Now I think the kids have sampled some new foods they might not have eaten at home, and they're reaching for the fruits and vegetables much more than they used to."
Word about the Ashland Schools menu has gotten out, other districts have inquired asking how to make nutrition pass the budget — and taste tests in their schools.
At the end of lunch, not every kid had cleaned off his or her plate, but these are 4th graders after all, and they had to leave room for the purposefully nutritious ice cream for desert, which I passed on. That's my story, anyway.
Our story was "cooked up" by WBUR's Sarah Bush.
This program aired on November 10, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.
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