When Calcasieu Parish middle and high school students return to class in the coming weeks, freshly delivered Pizza Hut will be among their weekly cafeteria options.
“Once students can skip lunch entirely, they do,” said Jacqueline Richard, school system nutrition program director. “So, we’re trying to be creative in coming up with ways to get them back into the cafeteria.”
In June, the parish was awarded a five-year Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant to fund initiatives that improve student health.
The award was based in part on parish health data, including disease prevalence and the number of grocery stores and fast-food restaurants in the area. Also a factor was the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches.
In an effort to combat the negative long-term effects of such health data, public school system nutrition services must follow federal regulations in crafting menus, Richard said.
“We’re giving students incredibly healthy food,” she said. “So, the creativity part comes from making the food appealing and taste good.”
Richard cited a 2014 study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior that showed only 27 percent of home-packed lunches met the guidelines set by school nutrition experts.
“Knowing that it’s not what they’re eating at home, we have to figure out how to make it appealing and flavorful,” she said. “We must make something that we know is different something that they want to still eat.”
The district must offer dairy, whole grains, protein, fruit and vegetables at lunch, Richard said.
But, she said, Calcasieu uses an offer-versus-serve approach, allowing students to select three out of the five choices rather than being forced to take all five. The program aims at reducing waste and fostering independence in decision making.
The Pizza Hut offering is based on U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, including whole-grain crust, low-fat mozzarella cheese and low-sodium pepperoni, Richard said. The recipe was taste-tested in the spring at two high schools.
In the same manner, the district has been offering biweekly Smoothie King options at middle and high schools for two years.
“It’s not a smoothie you can drive through and purchase from Smoothie King,” Richard said. “It’s specially formulated for our schools. Those smoothie days are some of our biggest days. Period.”