OTTUMWA — Even with free school lunch for every student in 2020-21, the Ottumwa Community School District saw less than 40% daily participation, according to survey data.
“We can do better than that. We have to do better than that,” said Superintendent Mike McGrory during presentation on the survey results during Monday evening’s school board meeting.
While overall daily participation remained fairly steady across grade levels, the district was surprised by some findings, including differentials between male and female students.
District-wide, daily participation rate is at 39%. It remains steady at 38% for elementary, 39% at Evans Middle School, and 41% at Ottumwa High School. But when broken down by gender, participation amongst males grew from elementary to high school (42% elementary, 49% Evans, 56% OHS) while it declined among female students (38% elementary, 27% Evans, 25% OHS).
Females were also more likely to mention eating items from the Snack Shack, having a lack of options, allergies, special diets or not being hungry.
“It concerns me a great deal,” McGrory said of the female drop in participation. “They drop down dramatically after fourth grade all the way through high school, and we need to address that.”
“We were surprised by some of the things that came out of the survey, but we asked for that survey,” said Yvonne Johnson, director of food service, in order to come up with ideas to improve the nutrition program. “You think you know, but until they tell you, you don’t know.”
The survey found that the main reasons students eat school lunch is for convenience and to satisfy hunger. Cost and taste were also reasons for participating in the program. Conversely, they’re not eating it because they dislike the taste and the “perceived poor quality of food.” Other factors on that side included a lack of variety and options, preferring to bring a lunch, and opting out or not being hungry.
The focus on taste and quality of the food was a big portion of the discussion on improvements during the board meeting. Students and staff heavily prioritized taste and quality of food as criteria in participation in the lunch program. But relatively recent changes in regulations have limited how much control the district has in addressing that.
“As a kid, eating the school lunches, I thought they were good,” said board member Brian Jones. But he said, he remembers nutrition requirement tightening under former President Barack Obama’s administration. “In your opinion, is that what changed it? It seems like the kids act like it took a lot of the taste out of it.”
“The Obama administration did put in regulations that were pretty tight and caused the menus and the recipes to change dramatically,” Johnson responded. “Some of those have gone away, but some of them are still [in place]. It has relaxed some and they are looking at it and I anticipate some changes for the good,” she said.
That’s partly in response to the amount of food waste across the nation, a problem not exclusive to the Ottumwa district.
However, the district has been consulting with Ricca Design Group out of Boulder, Colorado, to assess the food service areas in addition to looking at the survey results. It’s also formed a Food Service Community Advisory Committee to help look at possible improvements.
General recommendations for all grade levels from the consulting firm include adding salad and fruit bars in all schools, increased nutrition education with tasting days, expanded authentic menu items, such as Latin American cuisine, and developing a food service brand identity with a logo, uniforms and packaging and labeling.
They also recommended providing commercial-grade hot/cold holding equipment at the elementary buildings, adding a second option for hot lunch to increase variety and upgraded serving lines with color, graphics, and lighting integrated into sneeze guards, which was also recommended for the middle school.
For the high school, they recommended increased retail and grab-and-go times, expanded menu items in the snack bar, such as nachos, smoothies, and coffee, and various seating options in the dining space to make it feel less institutional and more like a cafe. Additionally, they’ve been talking with OHS Principal Mark Hanson about adding outdoor seating at OHS, said Dave Harper executive director of human resources and operations.
The committee’s priorities include expanded offerings, such as different pizza options, snack carts, barista and international cuisine, mid-morning snacks and protein shakes for athletes in addition to the fruit and salad bars in each buildings.
In regards to space and time, the committee also recommends additional areas to eat, dedicated spaces for eating at the elementary schools, finished kitchens at each building so they can all cook on site, and creating a cafe environment with a variety of seating options, social places, hard trays, lighting, graphics and music.
In addition to those recommendations, the district is looking at options for outside vendors. McGrory noted that the district has the option of bringing in vendors, for example Pizza Hut, to come in and provide food as long as they meet the nutritional guidelines. “That would be a big thing for the kids,” he said.
“Those companies have also seen the impact of what we’re having to deal with and have reformulated their product to meet our regulations,” Johnson said.
Other options that got enthusiastic responses from the survey included food trucks, chef-created items in a partnership with the Indian Hills Community College culinary arts program, and food tasting days.
“Variety was a key underlying theme of this survey,” Harper said.
Additionally, as students identified the opportunity to socialize as one of the best aspects of the food service program, the district is looking at expanding lunch times.
“We want our kids to have a great experience. The superintendent’s talked to school principals. We’re looking at expanding our lunch times to give those kids a little more time,” Harper said, stressing that this will be an ongoing project. “We want to try to look at how can we make those kids feel like it’s a cafe experience. We want to make sure they’re getting a healthy, nutritious meal, but the experience is also positive.
“Our goal is that not only are we developing lifelong learners, but we’re developing students that have wise and good eating habits."