The Mansfield School District (MISD) has a lot of students. And not only is the MISD feeding their brains with a good education, they are filling their bellies with delicious and nutritious food.
A lot of food. This past school year the MISD served more than five million meals to students.
"Students simply cannot learn on an empty stomach," said Rita Denton, MISD Director of Student Nutrition. "A well-balanced breakfast and lunch are essential to a great education, and we embrace that at the Mansfield ISD. We know that we are teaching and reinforcing a life skill when students come down the line and make a plate filled with delicious fruits and vegetables, healthy protein and whole grains.
"Lunch is a time that students can take a moment to relax and socialize while recharging their energy levels and their brains."
The five millions meals is the most ever served by the MISD, Denton said.
"In the past three years, while our student body has increased by 5 percent, we have increased our breakfast meals by 15 percent and lunch meals by 16 percent," she said. "We credit this participation success to our new approach of 'good food, real food' and focusing on bringing back scratch and semi-scratch cooking.
"We put our students first and listen to their feedback on our menu items. My staff embrace their work, and they truly love what they do. They welcome new customers, and they are rewarded in various ways when their campus participation increases.
"It is hard work in the kitchen and especially challenging with our evolving menu. The efforts are worth it in the end for all of us, and that is evident when we have kids cheering in the lunch line and writing thank you letters to staff."
With serving that many meals comes extreme attention to detail. From the customer service to the foods offered to the meticulous training of staff, Denton said the district is committed to excellence and nothing is left out.
As a parent herself, she can relate to the demand for quality and to the help those meals provide in a variety of ways.
"We hold ourselves to high standards. I personally know the value of sending my own children to school to buy lunch in the cafeteria," Denton said. "As a parent, it saves me time and stress that I can dedicate to other areas like checking their homework and paying close attention to their academics. I like to provide this convenience for parents and offer the very best foods available at a very affordable meal price."
And it's not only the students who are enjoying the meals.
"We have also seen an increase in teacher and faculty meals over this time span, and I am focused on reaching this market even more in the future," Denton said. "It is a great benefit to have an opportunity to buy a great lunch onsite at work."
As the new school year approaches, new menu items are being prepared for the students. Denise Hayslip, district dietician, said these are based on student acceptance.
Detailed records are kept on the foods served in the cafeterias. She and staff review the participation of specific menu items as well as the overall participation of each day. They then determine which foods have lower acceptance based on the percentage of that menu item compared to other items sold.
"We then determine if we can improve the menu item or it needs to be removed altogether," Hayslip said. "Next, we keep running lists of menu option ideas throughout the year. We then start creating new recipes and do taste testing within our department."
Once they have perfected a recipe, they host "tasting parties" at various schools to obtain student feedback.
"Students are the best judges of our newly developed recipes as they are the ones that will be consuming the meals in our cafeterias," she said.
In a taste testing at Summit High School, shrimp fajitas and jalapeno cornbread was a big hit. That recipe is right in line with the southern home flare part of the upcoming school year menu will have.
Other foods that will be making their debut in the fall include chicken spaghetti, grilled chicken pesto subs, chicken and waffle paninis, has brown casseroles, Asian chicken and rice bowls, and grilled stuff burritos. Not all grade levels will be offered the same food, however.
"Each individual is born with the most taste buds that they will ever have. That is why small children tend to not be fond of casseroles and mixed dishes," Hayslip said. "Elementary students tend to like less diverse and less seasoned foods. Younger children have had less exposure to a wide variety of foods, and too many choices can be overwhelming.
"So, with that in mind, the menus for pre-k through fourth grade are more streamlined and offer foods that they are most familiar with. We determined this year that the intermediate student's pallets are more advanced and should follow the middle school menu.
"We are very excited about this change, and we are hoping to see an increase in participation at this level due to more variety on the menu. The high school menus have the most variety as their taste buds are starting accept foods with a greater diversity of flavor."
But whatever the level, the most important thing is students get good food, real food, Hayslip said. To do this, they make as many recipes as possible from scratch or speed scratch. They look for clean labels and add whole, fresh ingredients wherever possible. All menus are created in compliance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's regulations for the National School Lunch Program as well as the School Breakfast Program.
Each lunch must contain all five component requirements which include grains, meat or meat alternate such as cheese, yogurt or beans, vegetables, fruit and milk. In order for the meal to be counted as a reimbursable meal, each student must take a minimum of three of the five components. One of those minimum three components must be a fruit or vegetable.
Nutrition workers try to accommodate all types of diets, including vegetarians. And while there has not been much request for vegan meals, Hayslip said they will be ready when that need arises.
"Students are increasingly exploring the idea of eating vegan or vegetarian. I suspect in the next few years, the demand for foods that adhere to these diets will rise," she said. "We are certainly expanding vegetarian options now. We will consider adding vegan options if we see the trend towards plant-based diets continues."
The department actually hosted a vegetarian tasting on July 17, seeking feedback from a large student focus group on prepared vegetarian options, such as hummus wraps, spinach mushroom quesadillas, protein power packs, and more.
Denton said whatever food is served, it is important that they not only be nutritious, but also liked by the students.
"Healthy food serves no purpose when it is thrown in the trash can, so we ensure the foods we offer are not only healthy, but are also student-accepted and delicious. If we have a recipe that is not a favorite, we take it back to the drawing board," she said. "Sometimes we adjust the seasoning. Sometimes we change the presentation of the item. Sometimes we flat out replace it."