Feeding Students in Escambia County Schools

Aug 28, 2019

School districts have the challenge of feeding thousands of kids per day, five days a week, during school season.
Credit usda.gov

Question: how do you feed more than 40,000 children two to three meals per day, five days a week, for 180 school days? WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody recently visited the Escambia County School District to find out.

Lunch time at Ferry Pass Middle School is where more than 1,000 students are served daily. The kids come to the cafeteria in separate waves – rather, shifts.

“At all of our schools’ lunch periods – there could be as few as two or as many as six to seven depending on enrollment; and having the different lunch periods allows the cafeteria staff to refresh everything, keep cooking, make sure the students are receiving high-quality fresh food,” said Jaleena Davis, Director of Food Services for the district.

“The central office has about 16 employees, and we oversee the operation for the school district,” Davis said. “Everything from processing free- and reduced-lunch applications, to ordering in the food, to planning the menus, and we also have two IT techs that work on our software.”

About 56 locations around the district are provided meals each weekday. Some are cooked by on-campus kitchens, others are brought in from other locations. All sites are staffed with state-certified cafeteria managers, who also serve as liaisons in the training of new hires.

Standing in the Ferry Pass cafeteria dining room, Davis says the meals are planned in accordance with guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to comply with meal reimbursement rates.

“USDA does regulate the meal pattern[s] for breakfast, lunch, supper and snack,” Davis said. “For example, at breakfast and lunch you have to take a cup of fruit or vegetables in order for the meal to be reimbursable. Now at lunch we are required to offer five components: milk, a meat, a grain, fruit and vegetable. And then they’re able to pick and choose the items they would like to select.”

The meal reimbursement rates, according to USDA, run from about $1.80 per student for breakfast, to roughly $3.50 for lunch. Kids eat free at all 45 schools in the Escambia County District.

Two lines serve the kids. One with hot food – the other with cold items – and both were packed on this day.

Jaleena Davis, Food Services Director, Escambia County School District.
Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

“In addition to that, we have a la carte items that the students may purchase, such as chips, ice cream, cookies, those kinds of things,” said Davis. “They’re not our big-selling focus points; obviously, we would like the students to get a full meal so that they’re well-nourished. But we like to have the extras available – because everything in moderation.”

Unlike classroom instruction, food service in a school district is a year-round business. Davis says they begin planning for the next term at the end of the previous one because of the many logistical moving parts.

“Between staffing and getting food in, planning the menus and making sure everybody’s trained and ready to go,” said Davis. “USDA in most cases is nice enough to give us at least a year’s notice when there’s going to be a change to our meal pattern. Because it does impact the food that we’re going to order, and most of our bids are annual. So we need a bit of leeway time in order to make sure we can make the change when they’re expecting it.”

Some of what makes it to the school menu is placed there after parents, students, and the community have a chance to sample the fare.

“Things that we’re interested in bringing in as new items, but also things that we regularly serve,” Davis said. “Because sometimes when people are able to sample and test something, then they’re more likely to pick it up when it’s offered on the serving line. We look forward to doing it again in the upcoming school year.”

Back in the day, students had little if any choices, and were constantly forced to eat everything on their plates – the old “kids are starving in China” gambit. But today, it’s a new philosophy – “offer vs. serve.”

“One of the benefits of ‘offer vs. serve’ is students are able to select the items they want, in order to help us minimize waste,” said Food Services Director Jaleena Davis. “And to give them the opportunity to try things that they may not normally try.”

According to www.livestrong.com, school lunch programs provide – among other things — a boost to energy and grades; help prevent obesity through limited fat intake, and help teach kids healthy eating habits for life. It would appear the belief of educators is that the way to a child’s mind is through their stomach.