As the new school year begins, parents in Montgomery County will be eager to see not just how their kids will perform in their new classes, but how the school cafeteria will perform.
Within the last decade or so, childhood obesity, healthier meals and healthier school lunches have become a major part of the national dialogue, and everyone from administrators and parents to the federal government have been weighing in and trying to spearhead some much-needed change.
Marla Caplon, the director of the Division of Food and Nutrition Services, spoke passionately about a new facility the division will be moving into, which will have more space for operations, state-of-the-art equipment and a 7,200-square-foot-garden to grow produce.
At 77,000 square feet, the new facility – compared to the current 58,000-square-foot facility – will be a big help, Caplon said.
In 1992 Caplon and her colleagues sat around a conference room table and had an idea about building one central production facility where all elementary school meals were prepared, which would allow recipes to be standardized.
The idea is becoming reality as the new facility won’t only be state of the art, but will also have something called a cook, chill operation, which allows foods to be prepared and cooled without ever being touched by human hands.
“There are recipes that are created. Then we make all of our soups from scratch, all of our sauces [from scratch],” Caplon said. “Things like taco meat, spaghetti sauce, cheese sauce, salad dressing are made in these 100-gallon vats and they’re mixed mechanically. During the entire process the temperatures of the products are maintained, and we have records through the mechanics that show the temperature at each stage, so when the product is complete, the product is siphoned in a cook, chill bag, which is a heavy duty bag, and then it goes up a ladder, up a conveyer and into an ice bath. The purpose is for the product to go from 200 degrees to chilling to 45 degrees or less in a quick amount of time, which prevents the growth of bacteria.”
All of this is done to create healthier products, Caplon said, because foods will never be frozen, just refrigerated to an extremely low temperature. Caplon said the folks at the Division of Food and Nutrition Services will actually create the recipes and modify them so they won’t contain high amounts of fat, sugar, sodium or any other potentially harmful ingredients. The new food distribution center should be completed by next year.
The current facility – located at 16644 Crabbs Branch Way – is being redeveloped for residential and retail, so workers were forced out. But it turned out to be a wonderful thing, Caplon said, because she and her team got to design the new building exactly how they wanted it.
The new building will have larger areas for fruit and vegetable preparation and a meat and poultry thawing area, which will allow more cooking from scratch for protein items. Caplon said there will also be a garden.
“Why not have a garden?” Caplon said she remembered asking during a meeting. “We buy tractor trailer loads of fresh produce, so the garden is going to enhance what we serve. It’s certainly not going to take over what we serve. We’re also partnering with various entities within the MPCS system, the culinary group, the environmental education group, the curriculum folks, so there will be a lot of involvement by other entities. We’ve got one entity that’s probably going to build our beds, so it’s really an MPCS garden.”
Caplon said there will also be tours of the garden for students, which will allow them to make the connection between what they’re eating in the cafeteria and where it actually comes from. By helping with the garden students will be able to earn service learning hours, which they need to graduate.
Caplon also spoke about why healthier school lunches and childhood obesity have become such hot topics in the last decade, and why so many strides have been made to make major improvements.
“It’s the right thing to do,” she said. “Of the 16 hours they’re awake, (students spend) eight hours in school. In many of our communities, and with many of our children, they not only have two meals in the school environment, but they have three meals. We have four areas in our county that are geographically eligible for the after-school supper program and the after-school snack program. Just last year alone we served about 283,000 suppers. Plus, we see ourselves as part of the academic environment, so not only do we do the right thing, but we teach the right thing.”
Among other societal causes, Caplon said economics is a major cause of the childhood obesity problem because those who are less affluent are forced to choose cheaper, unhealthier foods just to make their dollars stretch.
Caplon also said kids don’t play outside as much as they used to and because many are so teach savvy, they would rather do things inside with electronics.
There have always been meal guidelines for schools to follow, but Montgomery County schools have always been ahead of those guidelines, Caplon said, pointing to the Smart Snacks in School program as an example. Smart Snacks are nutritional standards recently set by the federal government.
“I’m proud to tell you that the snack guidelines, called Smart Snacks, that the USDA released, they actually align with what we’ve had in place in Montgomery County since 2006,” Caplon said.
Although there have been major strides in some areas, Caplon said other changes took longer. A can of soda, for example, could have been purchased from school vending machines in some schools as recently as 2006. Now the Division of Food and Nutrition Services uses just one vendor for the machines and owns the vendor contract, so it has more control.
In July 2014, a federal guideline stipulated that all vending machines had to be shut down for 30 minutes once the school day ends to prevent kids from loading up on junk and taking it home with them. But for Montgomery County the guideline started last year.
Lindsey Parsons, co-founder of Real Food for Kids, said her organization was largely responsible for the early roll-out and called it one of the more successful collaborations with MCPS.
Real Food for Kids is an organization populated by parents who are concerned about how nutritious school meals and competitive foods – items sold in vending machines during school hours or á la carte – are distributed.
Although Parsons said she was happy about the vending machine victory, there are other things that still need improvement, like ensuring students have more access to drinking water throughout the day. Parsons said although the county met them halfway by giving out water bottles to some students, she felt the problem was only partially solved.
Ideally, Parsons said each student should have their own water bottle that they would take home and bring back to school, which would be a healthy addition to their day and the environment.
“It’s not wasting a lot of plastic and it’s meeting the need to have a natural beverage of water and not just one sip at the fountain because you raised your hand and waited for five minutes,” Parsons said.
Parsons said she was glad the county began giving eight ounce water bottles to some students, but wish everyone received one, not just those on the free or reduced lunch program or those students who purchase their lunch. Students who bring their meals to school each day, she said, should have also been included.
Parsons said the county could better communicate with the organization about its final decision on certain requests it makes and create more accurate food descriptions on their menus.
“The entire menu is nutra-washed to make it look healthy when in fact we’re talking about the same packaged junk food that you can find at the 7/11,” Parsons said.
Caplon said it’s challenging to find the balance between foods that are healthy and foods kids will actually eat.
“It’s a struggle, and I’m not going to tell you it’s not, because kids eat with their eyes,” she said. “So you talk about a high school student that gets out before ten minutes after two. If he goes through the lunch line and sees all kinds of entrees that aren’t appealing to him, he’s not going to eat. He’ll wait until its ten after two and he’ll go to 7/11. So what we do is try to find the balance. We take an item such as a chicken nugget. It’s all muscle meat, it’s not fried. It’s whole grain breading. We bake it. The kids will eat it. Is that terrible? No.We need to have parents really understand that we know that a chicken nugget isn’t as healthy as eating a chicken breast, but two years ago we had a chicken breast on our menu, and the kids didn’t want it. So are we better off with the chicken going into the trash or a chicken nugget they’re at least eating?”