Have you ever wondered what really goes into making a school lunch? Feeding an area the size of the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) requires balancing students’ nutritional needs, dietary restrictions and preferences under a limited budget and federal regulations.
I had the opportunity to speak to Cindy Smith, the purchasing and procurement director at ICCSD, to better understand the process behind ordering food supplies, creating menus and determining the best choices for even the pickiest eaters.
Smith began her career as a chef, and after working in a variety of fine dining establishments, chose to work for the ICCSD lunch program, as it offered more regular hours and a work/life balance well-suited for her family. She’s now been with the district for 30 years, beginning as a kitchen manager before extending into sourcing and recipe development.
Her current role as a procurement specialist requires her to develop recipes for menus across the school district, order the proper quantities of food for their population, adhere to food safety requirements by tracking shipments to and from the hub warehouse, and much more.
The ICCSD serves an average of 8,500 students for lunch across 21 elementary schools, three junior high schools and three comprehensive high schools. During 2020 and 2021, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, universal lunch was offered at no cost to families, further increasing their numbers. The rules changed back this school year, and families are once again required to pay for their students’ school lunches. The school nutrition association has petitioned to extend the free lunch offering at the state and national levels.
When creating menus, Smith makes a few initial considerations to ensure the week runs smoothly. She considers the ease of use of each product and which producer is the best source. For example, produce and other materials that require more preparation must be put on the menu later in the week to give each staff member enough time to prep the product. Nutrition regulations limit desserts to a maximum of two per week. Lunches must contain a protein, a balanced vegetable and a certain number of carbs. USDA designates the veggie option must be a starchy vegetable or dark green, red or orange in color. Smith must also think ahead about storage length and the most compatible pairings of food. These considerations help schools minimize waste.
It’s important to Smith that ingredients be sourced from the area. Farm to school programs in the 90s encouraged Smith to prioritize local producers whenever possible. Unfortunately, there are barriers to this goal. By law, the school must adhere to bid pricing, which often means the lowest price offered by a producer or company must be chosen, regardless of location. When Smith picks a local product that is more expensive than something offered by another company, she must prove that the choice of a more expensive, local option is advantageous through superior taste and quality, and that it supports small and local businesses.
Grant funding offers expanded opportunities to spice up school lunch while supporting Iowa suppliers. Iowa’s Local Food for Schools grant gives schools across the state approximately $2,000-4,000 to source local products from structurally disadvantaged farmers. These grant funds, brokered through food hubs across the state, have helped to increase the amount of local foods school districts can offer without worrying about cost.
Beyond taste, local products often have other advantages over non-local options. Amid supply chain difficulties during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic that made dairy products sparse, ICCSD turned to local yogurt options from Country View Dairy. This yogurt has a much longer shelf life and relatively quick delivery period, which lowers food waste. Country View Dairy is still regularly used by ICCSD.
Additionally, Smith must collect feedback from students themselves. To this end, she often talks to students and monitors the cafeterias. She can get a good idea of how well food is received by taking a look at the garbage can and seeing which items are tossed most.
To increase enthusiasm about new foods, she’ll often turn to other school staff. Smith remembers a time when a principal encouraged students to try kohlrabi sticks for the first time by challenging them, saying, “I’ll eat one if you’ll eat one.” When students see an adult eat a new food offered to them, the food can appear less intimidating, and encourage students to try it for themselves, she explained.
Yellow heirloom tomatoes are a new local favorite of ICCSD students. Though hesitant at first, students soon began seeking them out, sometimes even preferring them over more familiar red tomatoes. Smith has said the best part of her job is seeing kids eat and love the food they’re given, especially when they understand where that food comes from. For example, students can visit Wilson’s Orchard and Farm with their families or on field trips. They’re proud to know their favorite entree comes from their own community.
This article was originally published in the 2023 Bread & Butter dining guide.
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