Can School Lunches Be Fixed? Austin-East Experiments With “Real Food”

In Cover Stories by S. Heather DuncanLeave a Comment

It’s almost lunch time at Austin-East High School, and David Howell is snapping on bright blue plastic gloves. The hulking senior will dish up food today, and then—unlike every other school day—he plans to eat lunch.

Howell is helping pizzeria owner Alexa Sponcia feed lasagna and Caesar salad to the school’s 700 students, for free, as part of an effort—by Sponcia, school administrators, and students—to find ways to improve the quality of school lunches.

Howell and several other seniors helping today say they never eat in the cafeteria. One of them fetches a free tray of food to show what they’re rejecting: a gray, flat chicken patty with two waffles, very cooked green beans, a tiny cup of fruit cocktail, squishy green-and-brown grapes, and half a cup of juice. Four big guys lean over it, inspecting and poking it like a dissection specimen in biology class, before grabbing the big bag of Doritos that came with it and tossing the rest in the garbage.

Wander through the cafeteria tables and you hear the teens make the same complaints: The food isn’t seasoned. It looks and feels strange. “You don’t know what school food has inside it,” says freshman Quayjean Easley.

Why is Sponcia’s lasagna better?

Voices chime in, the same response all the way down the table: “It’s real.”

The lasagna serving line was cobbled together from tables set up on one side of the cafeteria, while the main lunch line remains open. The scent of oregano wafts in the steam from tomato sauce bubbling beneath a layer of mozzarella. Junior Demyia Smith finishes hers, then a friend discreetly delivers her illicit seconds.

“School lunch is nasty,” Smith says. “Normally I eat nothing, even if I’m hungry.”

And that’s a problem—one that adults often consider inevitable because they remember their own school lunches. Given research that hungry students act up more and perform worse academically, some school districts across the nation have been striving to provide tastier lunches made from fresher and more local ingredients—a challenge without all the salt and fat that used to make school food more palatable. Alexa Sponcia and students at Austin-East want a similar push in Knoxville. Yet Sponcia’s journey has been an education in how school lunches came to be like this, and all the hurdles involved in creating an appetizing menu for students. 

Show Us You Care

When principal Nate Langlois took his job in 2015, he surveyed students about what they liked and disliked about the school. Complaints about food topped the list, he says. Frustration with school lunches also drove a senior statistics project last fall.

“Students told me: Food shows that you care, and what you’re serving us doesn’t show us that you care,” says Langlois, who won’t eat the lunch either. “My big thing is, we want the kids to want to come to school and enjoy it, and lunch is part of that experience.”

Langlois says he approached Sponcia, who was already working with the school’s culinary magnet program. Sponcia owns Hard Knox Pizzeria with her husband Paul, but the two also run a small nonprofit called Live Love Hope in an effort to use their business skills to uplift the community. One of its projects is a program Sponcia calls “The School of Hard Knox,” which brings local chefs to teach students in the Austin-East culinary program about cooking and the restaurant industry while also introducing them to new flavors.

“I noticed all the kids that weren’t in (the culinary program) who would show up there just to eat,” Sponcia says. “I was asking, ‘Why aren’t you going to school lunch?’ And they were like, ‘It’s so bad.’ They were foregoing eating at all.”

When she asked why they didn’t bring lunch from home, they told her it was too expensive.

Hard Knox Pizzeria co-owner Alexa Sponcia has taken on the challenge of creating tastier school lunches, testing her recipes once a month at Austin-East High School with a free lunch service.

“I always say there’s some emotional things that happen when you eat bad food,” Sponcia says. “I’ve taken bites and I’ve seen what they’re given…. The chicken patties are all the extra bits that they put it in a slime and squirt it out, and it’s flattened and breaded.”

Sponcia adds that Austin-East has “an amazing kitchen,” but she was under the impression that it is used only to reheat frozen food, not cook food.

Wanda McCown, executive director of the Knox County Schools Nutrition Program, says that’s not true.

“All our cafeterias cook food. We make spaghetti, tacos, and meatloaf from scratch,” McCown says. “There’s recipes that are followed. It’s not just: Take it out of the freezer and put it on a pan. And the menu is always changing because we’re always adding new items.” She says the district lets students taste-test new recipes before adding them to the menu rotation.

There are about a dozen Knox schools whose cafeterias lack the equipment to cook the entire meal, but theirs are cooked at centralized cafeterias (at Central High, West High, and South Doyle Middle) and then transported at lunch time.

The menu doesn’t vary by school, although it does vary by age group—elementary students have a different menu from middle and high school students. (You can take a gander at this month’s menus at knoxschools.org.)

There are at least three lunch options, although for elementary students, one is always peanut butter and jelly with Cheez-It crackers and a cheese stick. (Elementary school students complain that even the jelly is yucky.) There are often many versions of processed chicken served during the same week; at middle and high school, they are available daily, as is pizza.

Despite students’ commentary on the food, McCown says a growing number of kids (including at Austin-East) buy school lunches each year. School district data show that’s less consistent when you compare the daily average participation for the same month from year to year. McCown says this year’s participation is trending flat.

Data provided by the district shows that generally only about half of Austin-East students eat school lunch, even though a stroll through the cafeteria seems to reveal no more than a couple of kids bringing food from home.

Can lasagne make for a better school lunch? At Austin-East High School, it went over well with students.

A Cafeteria Education

Sponcia decided to pursue her own research about school lunches. Her idea was to experiment with feeding the students delicious food with more fresh components, while learning more about the logistics of cooking it, serving it, and meeting federal nutritional guidelines. In January she started providing a meal once a month, cooked in the kitchen of friend and caterer Hope Ellard, who owns Simply Southern. The hot food is transferred in coolers to the school for serving.

The first meal was taco salad with fresh-made guacamole. “Most had never had guacamole and were freaked out about green,” Sponcia says. “I said just try it, and a couple of the kids were like, ‘That’s so good!’”

Langlois saw the guac as a learning experience, too. “I think that’s one of our jobs as educators: To expose our kids to the world,” he says.

Lunch can be educational in more ways than one. Some school districts have used their food-service program to introduce farming techniques and science concepts to students, and as a vehicle to learn about nutrition.

The farm-to-school trend—which can include serving locally-grown food, or providing hands-on learning like school gardening or culinary classes—has gained ground nationally in recent decades. The National Farm to School Network now reports participation from 42,000 schools.

These efforts aren’t just in wealthier, health-conscious places, but in cities like Oxford, Miss.; Huntington, W.Va.; and even Memphis and Detroit. In Memphis, for example, high school menus include items like lemongrass chicken, chicken Alfredo, veggie pitas and hummus, and grilled chicken salad sourced from local and regional farms.

In Tennessee, school nutrition programs spend about $18.1 million on local products, according to the state education department. The most commonly purchased local food in Tennessee are apples, melons, tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers.

McCown says elementary school cafeterias at Pond Gap and Pleasant Ridge have used small amounts of vegetables grown at school or in nearby community gardens. She says she has tried to source more vegetables from local farms with little success, because Knox County’s school lunch program buys in such large quantities.

“We serve about 35,000 school lunches a day, probably 60,000 meals a day with breakfast,” she says. “With that being said, it’s sometimes hard to get a supplier.” McCown says she tried to work with a farm operation from a nearby county a few years ago, but it had trouble meeting the demand. “We were able to get a few ingredients from him, like cauliflower and sweet potatoes.”

The USDA and the state offer guidelines for school nutrition programs on how to procure local foods by buying in smaller amounts from multiple suppliers.

The state Department of Education website indicates that farm-to-school programs lead to students eating more school lunches, as well as lower meal costs, increased revenue, and less food waste.

Senior Taylor Teasley observed that when Sponcia feeds the student body, “The trash cans aren’t full of food. They’re full of trash.”

Math for Lunch

At Austin-East, distaste for the cafeteria food taught students about statistics.

After hearing athletes in her classes complain about cafeteria food, statistics teacher Lindsay Davis decided to forgo giving an exam in favor of assigning a project related to school lunches.

“I wanted them to see statistics in life,” she says. “I love that they now are empowered to go change other things with data that people will listen to.”

Students designed a series of surveys, then asked their fellow students how often they eat school lunch, how much money they spend in vending machines, and whether a special lunch would make them more likely to come to school. They presented the results to Langlois.

“I have never had a project before where students took such ownership,” Davis says. “It was just really powerful.”

Students broke into groups to try different sampling types, and not all results were the same—another valuable lesson in how survey design affects the outcome. One survey of 84 students did not find a single one who liked the school lunch (and 95 percent said they’d be more likely to attend school if an outside source were providing lunch). Another group surveyed 63 students to find that 12 percent liked the lunches, although 65 percent either disliked or hated them.

When asked what they’d like for lunch instead, some students responded with the names of fast food restaurants, but many listed things like “real salads” or “actual chicken.” Another student survey elicited suggestions that school lunches should be “more cultural,” have more variety, and be freshly cooked rather than re-heated.

“All the chicken is fake,” says Howell, a big dude in a tie-dyed T-shirt, ripped jeans, and gigantic, untied purple sneakers. He’d like the cafeteria to serve spinach salad (currently it’s mostly shredded iceberg lettuce with a few hothouse tomato slices), more pasta, and “real fruit.”

McCown says Knox school cafeterias serve fresh fruits and vegetables every day; in fact, most of the fruit is fresh. “We spend probably well over $1 million a year just in fresh fruit,” she says.”We try to use fresh vegetables and cook them when we can.”

She says fresh-made salads are available daily at high schools, and the menus reflect that there is generally either a main dish salad or side salad option. But students at Austin-East disputed this, many claiming they’d eat a salad daily if it were offered. Other high schools and middle schools, even in rural mountain school districts, have offered salad bars for decades.

Howell and Keanu Pritmore say they survive on Pop Tarts and Rice Krispy treats out of vending machines, spending up to $5 a day of their own money rather than take the free lunch. One of the surveys found that 77 percent of students spend between $1 and $10 a week in the school vending machines.

Davis says athletes in her classes often have an almost contradictory complaint: The food is bad, but even if they eat it, there’s not enough of it to sustain them. Teasley, who plays basketball and volleyball and runs track, says she only makes it through games and meets because coaches bring players food like Subway sandwiches during lunch.

McCown says the federal government sets the portion sizes and Knox County follows those guidelines, although she acknowledged that nothing prevents the county from serving portions larger than the minimum requirements.

Teasley worked on the design and analysis of one of the statistics class surveys. Her group concluded that some students don’t eat at all during the school day, “resulting in malnutrition, bad moods, and failure to pay attention. Students not eating well defeats the purpose of being in school because at the end of the day, none of what the teachers say is retained.”

Medical research has shown their conclusions are pretty accurate. For example, a study published in the journal Pediatrics in 1998 found that almost all behavioral, emotional, and academic problems were more common in hungry children, with aggression and anxiety having the strongest correlation.

Langlois says he sees improvement in behavior on the days Sponcia serves lunch: Fewer students try to skip lunch and wander the halls, and more people feel happy and full.

“It’s a different energy,” he says. “I think they feel more valued. And when you feel more valued, you tend not to make some bad decisions.”

Gathering around a table of enjoyable food also creates community, Sponcia says. “If we could just feed them one amazing meal a day, how much would it change their lives?” she says. “Because I believe that food changes lives.”

Sponcia plans to continue the meals through May and prepare a documentary, with the help of students and a producer friend, that could be presented to the school board in the fall along with a concrete proposal about how to improve the food.

“My goal for the video is just for the kids to be able to have a voice,” Sponcia says, and that there are ways to push for change with data instead of just protests. “I try to teach them you need to be heard and respectful, and you do it with dignity and you do it with love.”

She plans to approach local chefs and farmers to help her develop or present her proposal, and would like to work with Nourish Knoxville to find ways to source more food from local farms.

She and Langlois are quick to point out that the cafeteria workers—who also ate the lasagna Sponcia made—care about the kids and want to feed them nourishing food. They question not the lunch ladies, but the food-buying decisions made by district administrators.

“I am very passionate about our school nutrition program and very proud of the work we do,” says McCown, who makes many of those decisions. “We are very diligent in offering nutritious and healthy meals to those students, and our goal is to feed those kids that are hungry.”

“It’s not a battle,” Sponcia emphasizes. “I want to link arms with them: How do we change just one lunch, or one breakfast?”

She’s already learning it’s not as easy at it sounds. It’s a challenge to serve almost 700 students who have less than 30 minutes to get lunch and eat it. When it came time to serve the salad, she realized a lot of the Romaine lettuce had been left behind, so at least half the kids in the first lunch period didn’t get any. Sponcia raced back for more, and with swooping arms she and Ellard mixed it with grated Parmesan, croutons and dressing in big metal bowls.

Sponcia hasn’t been measuring all the servings to count the calories, as would be required for a USDA-funded school lunch. And although the salad was fresh, the lasagna she served was purchased and baked from frozen.

Healthy AND Delicious?

Some critics have laid the blame for lousy school lunches on federal school nutrition rules that became effective in 2012 after a campaign spearheaded by former First Lady Michelle Obama. The new rules require that schools use less salt and oil and offer more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, in recognition of the tripling of obesity rates among American children since the 1970s. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, one in five school-aged children today are obese, which puts them at higher risk for chronic health conditions like asthma, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

But some school districts have complained that the resulting changes to school lunches led many kids to stop eating them.

A 2015 survey by the School Nutrition Association found that of the 1,100 respondents, 70 percent of school district food programs indicated the new mandates were hurting them financially, mostly due to increased food costs. And 58 percent saw a decline in student lunch purchases, with most citing “student acceptance of meals” as the reason. More than a third indicated they were coping with the financial pressure by limiting menu choices and variety.

McCown says the nutritional guidelines were tough to meet a few years ago because so few vendors offered whole grain or low-sodium products. “But it’s good for the kids, and more and more products are being developed. Enough better recipes are being made that it is being accepted,” McCown says. “And we see that because of increase in participation.”

The Community Eligibility Provision has, to an extent, freed school districts from some of these pressures.

The federal CEP program provides free breakfasts and lunches to entire schools or districts with large populations of low-income students (40 percent or more). The idea is that when the school district doesn’t have to spend administrative time tracking individual student eligibility for free and reduced lunch, it saves money that can be invested instead into better food or more cooks. The approach also saves students the embarrassment of being identified as “poor” when they go through the lunch line.

Austin-East is one of 52 CEP schools in Knox County, which together serve about 10,000 meals annually. When it was certified, about 82 percent of Austin-East students would have qualified for free lunch anyway, said Knox County Schools public affairs director Carly Harrington in an email.

Comparing August lunch participation from 2013 to 2016 shows that significantly more Austin-East students started picking up a school lunch tray—an increase from 5,266 to 6,796—once the school began participating in the CEP program. The feds require that they receive a balanced tray, even if they know they won’t touch some of the components.

“For some kids, this is their meal for the day. It needs to be something they eat,” Langlois notes. “We’re one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Why can’t we provide a better school lunch?”

Fresh Food Makes Sense

Research-based benefits of farm-to-school food in school nutrition programs:

• increased student participation in school meal service
• increased program revenue and lower meal costs
• increased community support for school meals and acceptance of the meal pattern
• reduced food waste in cafeterias
• improved eating behaviors in students (choosing healthier options, eating more fruits and vegetables, more willing to try new foods)

Source: Tennessee Department of Education

See Also:
Unlike Elsewhere in the U.S., Knox County Schools Students Aren’t Denied Lunch
The Unexpected Origins of the School Lunch Program

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

Share this Post