School lunches have changed a lot in the past few years.
Maggie Dreher, the shared food services director for Avon and Region 10 schools, said that Avon is one many school districts moving away from processed meals and starting to make meals from scratch.
She credits the push to address childhood obesity across the nation with the change in philosophy in food services for schools nationwide.
The amount of students with food allergies is also on the rise, Dreher said. The education surrounding nutrition and school lunches has increased.
Serving healthier meals to Avon’s students is not about putting them on diets, according to Dreher.
“If you can cook fresh, it’s just healthier,” said Dreher, who worked in food services at Watertown schools for 15 years and was in the restaurant industry prior to that.
She and her staff are focusing on serving meals with less sodium and fat and more whole grains. Processed foods have more salt in them to preserve them, so she said that’s one of the arguments for making foods from scratch.
It will take time for students to adjust, particularly the teens, she said, but the younger students seem most willing to try new dishes. The practice of serving more fresh foods will change students’ pallets.
“It’s a process to get kids away from that frozen chicken tender and to eat a healthy product,” she said.
The district has consulted with Avon chef and cookbook author Terry Walters, who specializes in clean and organic food. Dreher plans out the menus monthly adding many seasonal dishes.
While many of the foods are similar – pizza and chicken tenders, for instance – cafeteria staff are making pizza, chicken tenders, turkey chili and other foods from scratch rather than relying on frozen items and fryalaters. This is the first year Avon has emphasized food from scratch.
School cafeterias have increasing nutritional guidelines to meet, including offering more fruits and vegetables.
Avon schools already get apples from Hayword Orchards in Burlington and are exploring options for produce from local farms and a future farm to school program.
By sharing a food services director with Region 10, Avon and the Burlington-Harwinton school district are eligible for purchase cost savings for food and equipment.
“It’s going well,” said Dreher, who has been with both districts since August.
Both currently are benefitting from a Department of Defense grant for fruits and vegetables and are getting most of the produce from a Rhode Island vendor.
“They’re concerned about the health of the students,” Dreher said.
Many people may not realize that Avon’s food services program is self-sustaining as oppose to being funded by taxpayer money, Dreher said.
“It’s basically running businesses.”
The changes in the food services industry fit with Avon’s mission of sustainability. Avon cafeterias plan to swap out paper plates with dishware as a way to cut down on waste. Avon schools are also exploring the idea of having gardens.