Feeding hungry students is a culinary challenge for SKSD kitchens

Picky primary students skip the pepperoni, but high schoolers like the spice on their lunch menu

By Mike De Felice

Kitsap News Group

PORT ORCHARD — Come lunchtime, hungry students attending South Kitsap schools bolt to the cafeteria to be served anything from pizza and orange chicken to burgers and fresh-made salads.

Like clockwork, the food is either hot or cold, depending on the dish, and without fail, ready to be served to the students and staff.

But it’s a safe bet those with grumbling stomachs don’t realize that food services staff members have been busy working in school kitchens as early as 4:30 in the morning to whip up their favorite meals.

“We serve about 5,300 lunches and 2,200 breakfasts daily across the district’s schools,” said Patricia Barret, assistant director of South Kitsap School District’s Food and Nutrition Division. A crew of about 60 works in the food-service division to help feed kids in South Kitsap’s 10 elementary, three middle- and two high schools.

School meal service plays a vital role in the educational system by providing nutrition — whether it comes from a chicken wrap sandwich, a gooey slice of pizza or a pile of cheese nachos — that keeps students satisfied and prepared to learn.

For anyone who thinks they buy a lot at Costco, think about what it takes to feed hungry students and staff at the school district. Each week, South Kitsap school kitchens go through 900 pounds of apple splices, 2,400 pounds of French fries and 300 pounds of hamburger patties.

“We serve about 5,300 lunches and 2,200 breakfasts daily across the district’s schools,” says Patricia Barret, assistant director of South Kitsap School District’s Food and Nutrition Division.
(Mike De Felice | Kitsap News Group)

“We serve about 5,300 lunches and 2,200 breakfasts daily across the district’s schools,” says Patricia Barret, assistant director of South Kitsap School District’s Food and Nutrition Division. (Mike De Felice | Kitsap News Group)

Meals for students can vary from grade to grade. They range from basics like the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — sans crust — to yummy pasta dishes. Generally, students in the higher grades enjoy a larger selection of lunchroom choices.

Interestingly, food preferences change as students get older, according to food-service personnel. Younger children like the basics while the older ones are more likely to enjoy spicy chow.

Elementary school eaters

“They are very picky eaters,” Barret said of elementary grade-schoolers in kindergarten through fifth grade. “They like things they know and recognize.

“If the special of the day is not appealing to them, we always have alternatives available — peanut butter and jelly, grilled cheese or a bagel. Smucker’s Uncrustables [a PB&J sandwich without the crust] is a hit for those in kindergarten through third grade.

The most popular lunch for elementary school kids is something called ‘Breakfast for Lunch,’ a concoction of French toast sticks, pancakes or Dutch waffles along with eggs, sausage patties and fresh fruit, Barret said.

Pizza is the next most requested entree. Cheese pizza is the top pick of K-3 students — pepperoni topping is too exotic for many early learners.

“Very young children tend to have a pretty basic palette. They like things that are very familiar to them. When they see pepperoni pizza, they say, ‘I don’t like it when my food touches.’ It’s the same reason why little kids will often say, ‘I want to have spaghetti for dinner,’ but then just want the noodles and not the sauce on top of it,” she said.

But third to fifth graders, meanwhile, are all-in for pepperoni pizza.

Mexican dishes seem to be less desirable among youngsters. “Things like a burrito bowl or bean burrito are not the most popular dishes. That could be because of the cultural make-up of the district,” she explained.

Expanding choices for middle schoolers

An advantage of students moving from elementary to middle school is that they get more choices for lunch.

For example, at Marcus Whitman Middle School, kids are treated to between 20 to 25 lunch selections. Still, even with the wider array of choices, many prefer the usual grub.

While South Kitsap’s primary-age students would rather skip the pepperoni on their pizza slices, high schoolers are all-in for anything spicy on the menu. (Mike De Felice | Kitsap News Group)

While South Kitsap’s primary-age students would rather skip the pepperoni on their pizza slices, high schoolers are all-in for anything spicy on the menu. (Mike De Felice | Kitsap News Group)

“Sixth-graders go for pizza and burgers almost every time. The burger line at Marcus on the first day of school was probably the biggest line I’ve seen in a middle school. It was because all of a sudden, they had choices available they never had in elementary school,” Barret said.

For those with a taste for international offerings, Asian dishes — orange chicken, teriyaki chicken and General Tso’s chicken — tend to be the most popular.

On a recent day, the lunch staff at Marcus Whitman distributed 450 lunches. Servers dished up 200 hamburgers, cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches. On top of that, 50 sandwiches and salads were served, she said.

The least popular dish at middle school probably includes pasta, she said.

High school foodies

About half of the high school’s 3,000 students go through the lunch line each day. And tangy tastes with a spicy twist appeal to high schoolers.

“At the high school, they love, love spicy food,” Barret said. “They ask for it all the time. When we offer a spicy chicken patty, we sell out of that every time. On Asian Day on the International line, the high school can go through a whole bottle of Sriracha sauce in a day.”

The top dish at SKHS, without a doubt, is nachos. The food and nutrition administrator said students can choose beef or chicken on their chips and then ladle on cheese and sprinkle on a variety of toppings, including jalapenos and olives. Nachos Day proved so popular this school year and caused such long lines that the high school had to shift from offering the crunchy meal once a week to twice a week, she said.

Beef burgers and chicken burgers are also top vote-getters. “It’s not uncommon for us to serve 500 burger lunches in a day,” she said.

“Once kids reach high school, they get the most food choices. It’s the closest to what it will be like if they go to a four-year college, are on a food plan, and have lots of choices,” she said.

At SKHS, students get to choose between four different food lines — deli, pizza, American and international.

The deli line offers fresh-made salads and sandwiches, including wraps, hoagies and deli sandwiches. The pizza express line features cheese, pepperoni, and a specialty pie that might be chicken-bacon and ranch, Hawaiian, or a combination pizza. The American line offers hamburgers, cheeseburgers, chicken burgers, spicy chicken burgers, and chicken tenders. And the international line can carry items like sweet Thai chili and chow mein.

Not much time to eat

Lunchtime for students is not a leisurely affair. They have 20 to 25 minutes at South Kitsap schools to eat, she explained. There are a number of lunch periods to accommodate each student body, she added.

“[Middle schoolers] really like things that are handy and portable because they don’t get a ton of time for lunch. They want ‘grab and go’ stuff so they can eat quickly and go outside for five to 10 minutes to play basketball or chat with their friends,” Barret said.

“Much to my chagrin, the government does not have a mandatory lunch period. I would love to see that every student has a half-hour for lunch. That’s what we give to adults, but we don’t offer that same thing to our students,” she said.

As short as lunch periods are, meal prices this year have been accommodating to every family budget. Breakfast and lunches are free, thanks to COVID relief funding. Next year, costs for meals will return for families that exceed certain incomes. In elementary school cafeterias, a meal will cost $3, and in middle and high schools, $3.25.

Nutritional guidelines

What goes on students’ plates has to meet federal and state standards.

“The school meal program is one of the most heavily regulated programs in the education system,” Barret said, adding that this leads to school meals being among the healthiest available to children. Regulations call for children to have a “balanced meal,” she said.

One requirement is that only whole grain-rich products are used. All bread products, pizza crust, pasta and even the popular pink and white frosted cookies have to be made with whole wheat flour. Sodium and calorie limitations also apply. In addition, every student in the South Kitsap School District, whether a kindergartener or a high school senior, must have at least a half cup of fruit or vegetables with every meal.

To ensure the fruit and vegetable requirements are met, South Kitsap schools offer students a Garden Bar, similar to a salad bar, that includes those required foods. “Believe it or not, our little kids take to fresh fruits and vegetables,” Barret said.

It is important the district accurately determines what meals to offer students. And not simply to best satisfy young palates. Wrong calls can also lead to food waste.

“We look at trends to set menus,” Barret explained.

For advice on what students prefer, the district turns to head cook Carol Enderud, who has been with the district for more than 20 years. She is the district’s source for historical data on what dishes work and which get bypassed.

“[Her] knowledge also helps us plan how many meals we need to prepare. I can find out how many servings of spaghetti we did every time that we offered it for the last 12 years,” Barret said.

A full belly is important

Barret and others in the foodservice division take their profession seriously. They view providing tasty and healthy meals to students as a vital element in the educational system.

“Children need a full belly to learn,” she said. “When children are hungry, they act up. And when they are acting up, they can’t learn in class. Think about it like this: If you’re really hungry and have to go to a meeting and you just can’t focus because you have a headache, or you’re distracted because your tummy is grumbling. Imagine what that is like for an 8-year-old who doesn’t quite understand why their tummy is upset.

“It doesn’t matter if you are in kindergarten or in the 12th grade, if you are hungry, it’s difficult to learn.”

The school district participated in National School Lunch Hero Day in May, honoring lunch personnel for the value they bring to the educational setting. Students provided food servers with posters, cards and flowers in thanks.

Barret enjoys her work and a big part of that comes from the appreciation she and her colleagues get from students.

“Every day I have been out at a school this year and I heard children saying, ‘Thank you for the food you make us. We love your food. It tastes so good.’ That is the stuff that feeds our souls and pushes us to show up at 4:30 in the morning.”