Smart Selections

school lunches

What’s going on your child’s plate? While children are especially susceptible to the misconception that eating healthy requires giving up some (often unhealthy and sugar or fat-laden) favorite foods, it’s important to realize that these foods can be included in a healthy eating plan if consumed in moderation. However, since parents are not present to moderate what their children eat during school hours, this is where the local food services department steps in to enforce a balance between calorie and nutritional needs and the foods and beverages consumed by children. Northwest Florida’s Business Climate spoke with Jaleena Davis, director of the Food Services Department of the Escambia County School District (ECSD), for the scoop on meal budgets, federal and nutrition guidelines, and other factors that influence what local schools are offering your children for snacks and lunch meals. Healthy, well-balanced and nutritious eating promotes higher performance both in and out of the classroom, so ECSD Food Services has been working closely with the local Department of Health and school cafeterias across the county to ensure local youth are receiving smarter selections when it comes to school lunch for the right amount of nutrients to sustain a healthy lifestyle beyond the school campus.

According to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a federally-assisted meal program operating in over 100,000 public and non-profit private schools, including over 56 sites in Escambia County, all school lunches must meet meal pattern and nutrition standards based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Currently, the meal patterns outlined by national dietary guidelines are designed to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in the school menu, and decrease the level of sodium and fats in all meal offerings. The meal patterns also set specific calorie limits to make sure children from kindergarten through fifth grade, sixth through eighth grade, and ninth through 12th grade receive age-appropriate meals. Although all school lunches across states and counties must meet federal meal requirements, decisions about what specific foods to serve and how they are prepared are made by local school food authorities, such as our own Department of Food Services.

School districts and independent schools that choose to take part in the NSLP get cash subsidies and foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for each meal they serve. In return, they must meet federal requirements and offer free or reduced-price lunches to eligible children.

In regards to budget, ECSD Food Services receives an annual amount of $20 million, which is allocated between 56 sites in the county according to the number of meals served. When purchasing food for school lunches from vendors, Food Services aims not to exceed spending more than $1.50 per lunch meal. On average, a total of 20,000 meals are served in Escambia County per day.

The USDA provides financial support to schools  in the form of cash reimbursement for each meal served. As of the 2014-2015 fiscal year, the current basic cash reimbursement rates, if school food authorities served less than 60 percent free and reduced price lunches during the second preceding school year, are as follows: $2.93 per free lunch, $2.53 per reduced lunch, $0.28 per paid lunch.

On Feb. 1, 2013, the USDA proposed changes to provide healthier food options in schools called “Smart Snacks in School,” which became the newest addition to federal requirements that all schools under the NSLP must meet. The new standards were put in place to make sure healthy options were offered throughout schools, extending beyond the lunchroom to vending machines and snack bars. The proposal suggested more snack foods with whole grains, low fat dairy, fruits, vegetables and proteins as the main ingredient. Also, the proposal requires schools to offer snack foods lower in fat, sugar and sodium content. Even products from cafeteria stations for Chik-Fil-A, Dominos, and Subway must comply with the new USDA guidelines.

As for lunch meal patterns on the local level, Escambia County bases servings for fruits, veggies, whole grains, protein and sodium, according to a student’s grade level. The amount is also based on the average calorie intake for a five day school week. All food items across grade levels should have nutrition labels, or manufacturer specification, which indicate zero grams of trans fat per serving. Also, servings for all grade levels should contain saturated fat less than 10 percent of total calories consumed.

For elementary students in grades kindergarten through fifth grade, the daily number of calories can be anywhere between 550 to 650 per student meal, while sodium should be less than 640 mg. Each middle school lunch may not exceed 700 calories, and sodium intake should be less than 710 mg. Each high school lunch may not exceed 850 calories, or contain sodium over 740 mg.

Today’s school meals provide plenty of variety and alternatives for students to choose from, and many menu items have been added because of student responses to food-preference surveys and taste-testing. A “good,” or well-balanced, lunch is considered a combination of foods providing approximately a third of the daily requirements for vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates and fats. All students are encouraged to take charge of their diet by making smart selections for their lunch meal and choosing at least three out of the five offered components of every lunch meal with the idea that “three is good, four is better, and five is best” promoted to assure greater variety of nutrient intake.

To further encourage healthy eating habits, the Florida Department of Agriculture (FDA) has held produce shows in Escambia County to allow select students from all grade levels to taste fresh produce and new recipes using those fresh food items. Moreover, Food Services participates in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program that allows some schools to offer fresh fruits and vegetables as snacks during the week with an educational component teaching children the important difference between processed and fresh produce.

“We also partner with the local Department of Health to provide the Let’s Go Program in select elementary schools,” said Davis. “The program encompasses healthy food choices and increasing physical activity in our youth.”

All of these efforts are geared toward lowering childhood obesity rates in Escambia County. Data from the latest 2014-2015 school year revealed that over 15 percent (15.70 percent) of Escambia County students who were screened were clinically obese. However, the good news is that this is a decrease from the previous 2013-2014 school year, when over 17 percent (17.22 percent) of students screened fell under the category of obese.

“Our Food Services Department follows federal meal guidelines to help students either maintain or obtain an appropriate weight,” explained Davis. “The meals offer a variety and demonstrate appropriate portion sizes, as well as the importance of having items from all food groups.”

ECSD Food Services works closely with food suppliers, such as US Foods Montgomery, Kelly Foods, Sysco, Butlers, Southeastern Produce, Big Charlies’, and Flowers Bakery. Although Food Services does not work directly with farmers, produce vendors will alert the department when products coming in are local—meaning the products came anywhere from Mobile, Ala. and Jacksonville, Fla. to areas along the southern Alabama and Georgia borders.

In the case of a product recall from any one of its vendors, Food Services receives a notification from either the vendor or USDA. Once the notification has been received, Food Services immediately checks both the warehouse and school site inventory for the recalled product, and, if the product is in stock at any one of our area’s schools, it is pulled from inventory immediately and not served to students.

In addition to complying with USDA requirements for the NSLP, ECSD Food Services works closely to follow standards that are up to par with those of the FDA, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FLDACS), School Nutrition Association (SNA), American Diabetes Association (ADA), and American Heart Association (AHA). This is all done with the aim of enhancing the Food Services department’s vision of providing excellence in food and nutrition services, as well as promoting nutritious school meals and making nutrition education programs available for all children regardless of economic status, cultural background, or special needs.

Find out more about what’s going on your child’s plate by viewing cafeteria menus categorized by school on the ECSD Food Services website. Also, keep up to date with the latest department news on fundraisers, nutrition and wellness education opportunities, and ways to apply for free or reduced lunch for your children online at: