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Around the Valley: A seat at the table

The quest to make nutritious food available to all public school students for free is a laudable idea, but some students say the school-provided food isn’t cutting the mustard.
School lunch
When students returned to in-person learning, the universal free school meal program continued throughout the country.

The quest to make nutritious food available to all public school students for free is a laudable idea, but some students say the school-provided food isn’t cutting the mustard.

Prior to the pandemic, school breakfasts and lunches were the only times some students ate during the day. During the pandemic, with many parents unable to work, food insecurity among students became a major concern and schools started providing free meals that could be picked up. When students returned to in-person learning, the universal free school meal program continued throughout the country.

“Because the federal government has allowed public school districts like PUSD to provide breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge, we have seen a jump from 2,821 to 7,700 lunches daily from pre-pandemic times to today,” said Mary Fell, Director of Child Nutrition Services at Pleasanton Unified School District.

Some students, though, would rather go hungry because they can’t stomach the food, according to a group of Pleasanton Middle School eighth-graders who formed Pleasanton School Meals Project (PSMP).

PSMP wants school officials to know how students feel about the food and offer suggestions to help “our friends who have to endure it” because they can’t consistently bring a lunch from home, according to Maya Mithani.

Mithani is the founder of PSMP, which also includes Eleanor Chen, Penelope Keenan, Liwon Kim, Natalie Knosp, Nia Lam, Aurora Nicolas, Sumana Srinivasa Raghavan and Evelyn Sun.

PSMP conducted an online survey and in-person interviews, collected photographic evidence, presented nutrition standards and values of a few menu items, provided analysis and made recommendations in a very impressive report, “Students Deserve Better.” 

The authors made it clear the work was done, “not to vilify school lunches,” the report introduction reads, but because they “simply want higher-quality alternatives for students who eat school meals.”

PSMP’s conclusion was that “not only are the lunches unappetizing, as said by the students, but they also violate the district’s own (nutritional) guidelines.”

Fell and PUSD’s Child Nutrition Services coordinator Maly Pra said the information about nutritional standards used in the report were incorrect and indicated calorie maximums per student group from the Smart Snack Nutrition Standards/Guidelines and not the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and National School Breakfast Program (SBP). 

They explained there is a difference in the way calorie maximums are counted in the Smart Snack and breakfast and lunch programs, with the snack program based on a calorie maximum per item, while the breakfast and lunch programs are calculated as an average of meals for a week. 

In addition to calories, school districts have to follow federal regulations to meet requirements for whole grains, protein, fruit, vegetable, dairy, fat, trans fat and sodium.

Let’s be honest – foods high in nutrition are often not high in appeal. 

“The guidelines we follow require us to have 50% whole grain or more,” Pra said. “People who culturally eat white pasta, when they have the 51% brown pasta, it’s not palatable. So we have to take that into consideration when students are saying they want appealing food.”

“PUSD has a racially and ethnically diverse student population,” she said. “This means our students also have diverse palates and enjoy foods with different flavor profiles. Our goal is to develop a menu that appeals to the majority of our students.”

Fell also pointed out that the schools have only ovens to heat meals as opposed to being able to prepare meals from scratch, making it more difficult to offer food like most students enjoy at home. 

During public comment at the April 28 PUSD board meeting, Mithani, Kim and Chen very professionally presented their findings to the trustees and stated their desire to “work alongside the district to find an efficient and effective solution to this problem for the betterment of our students.”

They will get their wish when PSMP members meet with Fell, Pra and PMS principal Joe Nguyen May 26. 

Fell and Pra said they appreciate the students’ feedback and questions, and they look forward to sharing details about PUSD’s meal program and hearing their suggestions. 

“We want to know how we can meet their needs. Sometimes there are other things out there we haven’t thought about,” Fell said, adding they have considered doing taste tasting and incorporating students’ feedback into menu planning next year.
 
“We are looking forward to having an open dialogue with students,” Fell said, “to share information and find out how we can work collaboratively while continuing to follow the federal guidelines that dictate our Child Nutrition program.”

Editor's note: "Around the Valley" is a blog by Gina Channell WIlcox, president and publisher of Embarcadero Media Group's East Bay Division.