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The science behind Havasu school lunches

Of all the restaurants in Lake Havasu City, which one serves the most meals? Hint: Most adults can’t dine there.

The answer is the cafeterias of the Lake Havasu Unified School District. Between breakfast and lunch, a staff of 52 prepares and serves 3,800 meals a day. There are two main kitchens where food is prepared – Thunderbolt Middle School and Lake Havasu High School. Those kitchens prepare and deliver food to six elementary schools.

“We’re constantly in motion,” said Christopher Gallaga. He’s the food service director for the school district and works in lockstep with Anne Taffe, the district’s child nutrition supervisor.

With the first day of school just days away – Aug. 5 – Gallaga and Taffe took advantage of a short lull to sit down with Today’s News-Herald on Monday morning. They talked about what it takes to feed a horde of hungry students.

For starters, a lot of meat.

“We use 50,000 pounds of ground beef, 20,000 pounds of chicken and 69,000 pounds of potatoes over the school year,” Gallaga said. It takes 12,000 slices of whole wheat bread and 14,000 hamburger buns per month to meet demand.

Students have choices for milk, which is served in eight-ounce cartons.

“For white milk, we have 1% or skim. The chocolate milk is fat-free skim,” Taffe said. Students consume 43,000 gallons of milk during the school year.

The rules

The largest restaurant in Havasu is also the most heavily regulated.

The United States Department of Agriculture calls the shots through its national school lunch program. Because the program also provides low-cost or free lunches to children each school day, it has very strict guidelines on food served in the district’s eight lunch rooms.

The USDA demands nutritious food choices. While an old family recipe for lasagna might be gobbled up by students, the USDA forbids serving it. Grandma’s lasagna is deemed to have too much fat, sugar and calories.

The goal is meals that are low in sodium, heavy in fruits and vegetables and are whole grain-rich, Gallaga said.

To keep the district’s kitchen on the straight and narrow, every single ingredient used must be recorded and reported.

“We keep what the USDA calls a ‘production record,’ which is a complicated Excel sheet for each ingredient that is later reviewed and audited,” Taffe said. “For each item, we list calories, grain content, fat, vitamins…there’s a lot to track.”

Heavy oversight from the USDA means the content of menu items is scrutinized and analyzed.

“Everyone thinks we just slap food on a plate,” Taffe said. “Far from it. There’s a lot of science that goes into our food.”

Sweet danger

Too much sugar is bad for one’s health, especially growing children. That’s why school district cafeterias keep a close eye on students’ sugar intake.

“A parent called me, upset that there are 12 grams of sugar in the milk we serve. I explained to her that it was milk sugar. She didn’t understand that there are different types of sugars and sugar is in everything we eat,” Gallaga said. He pointed out that if the child ate an apple, an orange and a banana, the three fruits together contain 80 grams of natural sugar.

“There a big misconception about the cereal we serve for breakfast. Cinnamon Toast Crunch is very popular. But what we serve and what you buy at the store are not the exact same cereal,” Taffe said. “For manufacturers, school cereals are a separate (production) run from cereals on grocery store shelves. They have less sugar.”

Nutrition content is something that makes Taffe wince when she sees Lunchables and soda consumed by students who brought their lunch to school. Both are high in sodium and sugar.

According to Fooducate online, a Ham + Swiss with Crackers variety Lunchables contains 1,130 milligrams of sodium. Consider that an elementary school-aged child should consume about 1,200 milligrams of sodium per day.

But sometimes, serving healthier versions to students doesn’t work out.

“We tried the whole grain pastas, but they don’t hold up when cooked and they didn’t taste good,” Taffe said.

“Kids wouldn’t eat the pastas, so we had to switch back,” Gallaga said, pointing out that healthy alternatives are great if students like them. “If kids aren’t going to eat, that’s not healthy, either.”

What they pay

Lake Havasu Unified School District students pay $1.25 for breakfast at all schools. Elementary school lunch is $2.50. Middle and high school lunch is $2.75.

Some students qualify for free or reduced-price meals which is subsidized by the United States Department of Agriculture. Reduced-price meals cost 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch.

By the end of the 2018-19 school year, 2,244 Havasu students received free meals and 397 got reduced-price meals. Another 2,799 paid the going rate.

 

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Pam Ashley, Today's News-Herald
Jul 29, 2019

School Supplies


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