CRESTVIEW — The days of mystery meat and sodden vegetables are long gone, school cafeteria managers said, as north county schools observe the School Nutrition Association’s National School Lunch Week.

CRESTVIEW — The days of mystery meat and sodden vegetables are long gone, school cafeteria managers said, as north county schools observe the School Nutrition Association’s National School Lunch Week.

With a choice of 10 entrées a day in high school, between five and eight a day in middle school, and four entrées — including two cold and two hot — at the elementary level, students have more choices under the Okaloosa School District’s new food service than when the district ran school cafeterias with food pre-made at a central kitchen.

“There’s still a perception among some people that everything is coming from a central kitchen, but it doesn’t,” said Larry Haile, general manager of Sodexo Education’s Okaloosa School District office. “Everything is made fresh at each school.”

“It’s a lot better now than a couple years ago,” Crestview High School senior James Reid said, adding that his favorite menu selection is the made-to-order sub sandwiches.

The hoagies, which include a popular toppings bar, and a wider choice of beverages including 100 percent fruit juices and flavored waters, but no carbonated sugary drinks, also appealed to Baker School eighth-grader Jamaal Day.

“I think it’s nice not having to drink milk all the time,” Jamaal said. “I personally like eating the subs here.”

Crestview High senior Alex Andrews is partial to the pizza made on a whole-wheat crust with low-fat cheese.

“I don’t get it every day, though,” Alex said as he took his basket with a chicken patty sandwich, fresh apple, fruit cocktail and chocolate milk to the checkout. “I enjoy a little variety.”


Fruits and veggies

“That’s part of our national nutrition patterns,” Crestview High food manager Lynn Roberts said. “You see more fruits and vegetables on their trays.”

Haile said research showed that while 99 percent of elementary school students include a serving of fruit or vegetables in their basket, the percentage dropped to 42 percent of middle-school students and just 36 percent of high-school kids.

“Students must take a fruit or a vegetable with their meal,” Haile said. “And hopefully they’ll eat them.”

Two dieticians at the district office prepare county schools’ menus, Haile said, and follow nutritional guidelines including the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new MyPlate standards, those of the School Nutrition Association of Florida, and voluntary standards set by the Alliance for Healthier Education. While previous guidelines under the Department of Education had minimum caloric standards, now that school meals fall under the USDA, “they also put a maximum on it,” Haile said.

While the pizza and hoagies were a top choice at Crestview High and Baker School, farther south, the kids at Riverside Elementary School had a different favorite.

“Chicken nuggets,” Principal Marline Van Dyke said. “They all love chicken nuggets.”

Those nuggets “are whole muscle meat and baked fresh,” Haile said. “We don’t fry anything in any school.”

Van Dyke said very little encouragement is required for her students to make healthy choices when heading down the lunch line.

“It’s surprising. When you put healthy selections out there, they’ll eat it,” she said. “They have whole wheat buns and they probably don’t even realize they’re having whole wheat buns. They can probably teach their parents something about healthy eating.”

Riverside’s food service manager Lydia Bradley said the kids generally like the selections.

“There’s always something for everybody,” she said. “They have a lot of variety. But now and then, we get that one who won’t eat anything.”


Healthier, with less waste

As kindergartener Jazmyn Diggs carefully used the tongs to help herself to a crisp quesadilla, Haile said letting the students serve their own portions has proved cost effective.

“We see less waste when the kids serve themselves than when we portion it out,” he said.

“We no longer put the food on their plates,” Baker School food service manager Cynthia Mims said. “They do it themselves. We just make sure that they are getting the right amount.”

Haile said district food service officials are always tweaking the menu in response to student preferences, and learning all the time.

“The kids’ll tell you what they think,” he said. “They’re not shy.”

While a Crestview High cafeteria worker took a temperature reading from pizza on the school’s à la carte self-serve line, Haile said, “Food safety is very important,” noting that each school food service operation is inspected three times a year by state authorities “and they have to maintain an A rating each time.”

“We have to document everything to make sure we are abiding by the regulations,” Mims said.

Occasionally, Haile said, the district office receives a call from parents who say their children complained about their lunch’s variety or quality. Haile said he always encourages those parents to come to lunch at their child’s school.

“I invite them to come see what they are served,” Haile said. “I’ve never had a parent come back after they see what their child has to choose from.”

Last year in the Okaloosa County School District, Sodexo Education served more than 2.5 million lunches, Haile said. And his customers are noticing.

“Our lunches have greatly improved in the last three years,” Van Dyke said.

Read Brian Hughes' review of a Riverside Elementary lunch here.