There may not be filet mignon with bourblanc sauce on the menu at the school cafeterias, but Lake Tahoe Unified School District administrators have made some culinary changes this fall.
It's a move sparked not by basin gourmets, but rather by federal regulations issued in response to a growing number of health issues among the country's youth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, with about one in three children considered overweight or obese in 2008.
Enter the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The legislation, enacted in December 2013, authorizes funding and sets policy for the U.S. Department of Agriculture core child nutrition programs. This year, the regulations require districts to increase the amount of fruit, vegetables and whole grains while decreasing protein and serving size.
South Tahoe High School cafeteria staff, armed with petite apples and chocolate milk, manned their battle stations on Thursday as they prepared for what LTUSD Director of School Nutrition and Purchasing Shelley Giannotta calls "bedlam," otherwise known as the STHS lunch period.
A trickle of high school students quickly turned into a flood as the clock hit 12:37 p.m. Youth jostled to the counter, where they could choose from organic gala apples direct from a California farm, pizza with whole-grain crust, a salad bar, rice bowls, burritos, smaller burgers and more. Gianotta said they've been serving about 400 lunches, each priced at $2.75, daily.
Freshman Aric Smiley said he likes that there are more options to choose from, and that he's noticed that the smaller portions can leave some students looking for other ways to fill their stomachs before the start of afternoon classes.
"I think it's good. They have a lot more variety. The portions are smaller, and that's what pulls the people toward the vending machines," STHS freshman Aric Smiley said as nodded at a line forming by the machines.
Sometimes healthy and tasty don't go hand in hand, but by giving youth options and encouragement, Giannotta said she hopes healthy eating habits will start to take root.
"There will be more whole grains, smaller portions, more vegetables. We're trying to rotate all those colors and subgroups of veggies and we encourage students to try things they haven't tried before," Giannotta said.
STHS students are not only trying new foods, they're dining in a brand new student union and cafeteria. LTUSD nurse Margaret Mckean said she's excited about the new menu and facility, but emphasized that it's not just the school that has a role to play when it comes to eating right. Those changes need to start at home.
"It needs everybody, not just the school," Mckean said.
"The high school, that whole program, the new choices for the high school kids, it's unbelievable. There's more choices for the kids. We're gradually getting the kids to look over the choices and making the right ones," she said.
Fruits and vegetables come at a price though, and sometimes a hefty one. The USDA estimates a 3-4 percent increase in retail food prices by 2013, partially because of the drought. Though the district will get an additional six cents for every lunch, Giannotta doesn't think that will come close to covering the extra expenses.
California Department of Education Nutrition Education Administrator Carol Chase pointed out that six cents might not sound like much, but when multiplied across the state, it comes to about $35 million in additional lunch funding.
According to Chase, it's up to the school districts to manage the costs and implement the changes.
"It starts with how that school district is managing their cafeteria fund. It has to do with local decisions in relation to what food their choosing. These changes are very important to us and the successful implementation of them is a main priority," she said.