What’s on the menu?

Art by Kate Xia
Art by Kate Xia

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service proposed updates to the national school nutrition standards on Feb. 5, calling for a reduction in the amount of sugar and prioritizing whole grains.

In compliance with this new regulation, Paly Food Service Assistant Rosa Rivas said the school is working to provide healthier breakfast and lunch options.

“The main focus for the coming months is to reduce the amount of sugar in our breakfast items,” Rivas said. “Paly is already piloting freshly made oatmeal at breakfast with pepitas and dried fruits, as well as the vegan entree pilot.”


The USDA regulation stems from a long history of efforts to improve school meals. It first started with the National School Lunch Program, which was signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1946 as a means to improve student health. According to the USDA, the NSLP has grown to become the second largest food and nutrition assistance program in the U.S.

Seventy-four years later, the COVID-19 pandemic marked a turning point in how school lunches operate as students faced heightened levels of food insecurity and increasingly relied on schools to receive breakfast and lunch. Schools became a distribution center for community meals and a means of supporting students throughout the pandemic. 

While the current federal government program requires free meals in all public schools only through the 2022-2023 school year, California became the first state to pass a Universal Meals Program that goes beyond 2023.

The Universal Meals Program, part of a wider effort to improve California’s education system, requires all public schools in the state to provide a nutritiously adequate breakfast and lunch for students each school day. In 2022, the state invested an additional $650 million into the program. 

Simultaneously, PAUSD receives a federal grant from the USDA to serve school meals. PAUSD Food Service Consultant Alva Spence said the district has tried to use federal grant money from the USDA to improve the quality of meals for its students. 

“If (the district) wants to provide at least 40% or more of our entrees as scratch-cooked (meals), there’s a whole other side of funding that we have access to,” Spence said.

As of February, Spence said 54% of the lunch entrees served at Paly are made from scratch and prepared on site by the cafeteria staff in the Student Center Kitchen. 

Parent and student concerns 

A survey of 27 PAUSD parents conducted by The Campanile on Feb. 21 revealed that only one of the 27 parents think their student’s school cafeteria has enough healthy lunch options.

Stella Sze, a parent of an eighth grade student, said she is concerned about the portions of the food being served.

“(My concern) is really more from hearing my daughter come home and saying she’s really hungry,” Sze said. “I don’t know if it’s a matter of the type of food that she gets at school, or if she’s just growing and needs more food in general.”

Sze also said she is worried about the nutritional value of student meals.

“(The school lunch) doesn’t sound like it is the healthiest because (my daughter) says there’s fried or packaged foods that are provided,” Sze said. 

Marsha Habib, an elementary school mom and a member of the Farm Service Agency County Committee, which supports agricultural producers’ involvement in communities, said she would like to see more locally-sourced fresh produce in school lunches.

“Pre-packaged food items that are wrapped in plastic (are) not very healthy as they are loaded with sugars and preservatives,” Habib said.

However, Rosemarie Dowell, the district Health Services Coordinator, said that plastic packaged foods are necessary at the moment. 

“We don’t like the plastic,” Dowell said. “We’ve just had trouble finding a different alternative.” 

Despite her concerns, Habib said there have been major improvements in the district menus since the pandemic.

“I’ve noticed since (COVID-19) and the start of free lunches, the menu has improved from being mostly cheese and bread,” Habib said. “There’s now more fresh produce like salad on the menu.” 

Regardless of the content of cafeteria meals, for students, it’s often the accessibility of the cafeteria that makes school lunches appealing. 

“I don’t want to spend money every day (on lunch), and it takes a lot of time,” junior Carissa Tsui said. “On days when I don’t have a prep, I just get school lunch.”

However, Tsui said she thinks there is a lack of variety in the meals offered.

“For the non-vegetarian offerings, the meals are filled with protein and carbs and lack vegetables,” Tsui said. “My vegan and vegetarian friends also say the vegan and vegetarian selection is not ideal. It’d be nice to have more balanced meals for everyone regardless of their dietary restrictions.”

Despite the school’s efforts to improve food quality, of 82 students who responded to a survey conducted through Schoology on Feb. 21, 40% said they don’t think they have healthy options at school, and 30.5% said they are unsure whether or not the district offers healthy options.  

Current reform undertaken by PAUSD 

To encourage positive reform for PAUSD’s food service and to improve communication among parents, students and staff, PAUSD Food Service Consultant Alva Spence formed a Menu Advisory Council in October 2022. The group now consists of PAUSD faculty, parents and students. 

Joslyn Leve, a parent on the Menu Advisory Council, said the council serves as a platform for the community to give feedback about school lunches.

“The council formed after (the) Director of Student Nutrition Services, Alva Spence, wanted a place where she could hear direct feedback and have a problem solving session,” Leve said. 

Leve said the Menu Advisory Council meets once a month to discuss menu changes and make suggestions.

“(Spence) reports on some of the things that she’s implemented and the results of them, and then she opens up the floor for people to give suggestions or concerns that they have,” Leve said. 

Spence said the council connects her with parent concerns, which she directly takes into account. 

“In our last meeting, the parents wanted to see more entree salads at the elementary level,” Spence said. “So we created a survey that will go out to all elementary levels, asking that very question.”

Spence said the district is already piloting new ideas to make meals fresher and to help reduce waste. 

“Paly is already the site piloting freshly made oatmeal at breakfast with pepitas and dried fruits, as well as the vegan entree pilot,” Spence said. “We have a pilot at Addison Elementary where they’re using a dispenser for milk, they don’t even have any cartons anymore.  They have stainless steel cups, and it’s organic milk.”

Innovation continues at the middle schools too, as Spence said she also meets with a group of students at Greene Middle School to discuss the development of school lunches. 

“Since the first meeting we had with (Greene Middle School), they’re piloting a full build-your-own salad bar,” Spence said. “The kids go through and there’s noodles, there’s quinoa, there’s rice and there’s different proteins.

Additionally, student-run groups such as the Paly Plant-Based club are focusing on the goal of increasing plant-based brunch and lunch options at Paly. The club is meant to advocate for students such as Tsui who would prefer more robust meal options. 

“From around January to April 2022, we were working with nutrition services,” senior and co-founder Morgan Greenlaw said. “Speaking with (Spence), we were able to get daily plant-based options in April and May.”

Senior and co-founder of the Paly Plant-Based club Gabriela Hakeman said Nutrition Services has responded well to feedback from students and is excited to make innovative changes to the menu regardless of difficulties. 

Furthermore, Hakeman said certain plant-based options can be a more affordable option compared to meat-based meals. 

“Plant-based foods can be even cheaper than animal products,” Hakeman said. “It’s just the issue with expanding the options and offering more than two or three meal options.”

Barriers to further reform

Despite efforts to improve school meals, Hakeman said legislation restricts the school’s ability to provide plant-based meals

“We’re a public school, so (the) USDA regulates the budget of the school cafeteria,” Hakeman said. “Nutrition Services is already on a really tight budget, and all school meals are free now in California, which restricts the budget even more.”

Spence said additional funding for food services would expand options for students.

“It opens up the doors for me to be able to bring in more chefs,” Spence said. “There’s more money for me to be able to get different products, have more plant based meals or to purchase more equipment.”

According to Spence, at Paly, the number of students getting school lunches on a daily basis jumped from about 100 students pre-pandemic to about 400 now. At Gunn, student demand for lunches has increased from 350 to 700 students since the pandemic. 

Leve also said the main challenge schools face is having enough staff and resources to provide for students.

“It’s not just about the dollars available per student,” Leve said. “You need the staff who could cook the meals and deliver the meals, and we don’t have the kitchens to cook them individually.”

Fairmeadow Principal Iris Wong said the lack of an onsite kitchen has prevented her school from exploring healthier options.

“It would be much more convenient to have an onsite kitchen at Fairmeadow, as that would bring the option for us to pilot new foods or have a salad bar, for example,” Wong said.

And, according to Spence, as a result of the Universal Meal Program, it has been hard for food services to predict the food needed.

“We have no idea how many students are going to eat each day,” Spence said. “We’re thinking from history, this number has always been 200. And suddenly there’s 400 students lined up because for whatever reason today they want that item, and it’s very challenging because it’s always a moving number.” 

Dowell said the nutritional standards set out by the USDA, requiring public schools to regulate the amount of sugar, sodium and non-whole grains in their meals, also limited the district’s ability to meet student requests for different kinds of food.

“The hard part is that when we want to come up with creative or thoughtful food items, they don’t always fit within all the rules,” Dowell said. “There’s definitely no flexibility around that.”

In addition, Spence said USDA portions and calorie limits make her job more challenging.

“(The USDA) said 650 (calories) is still the ceiling (in elementary and middle schools),” Spence said. “But, you can give more of (grains and meat). That in itself is already a challenge of trying to balance. Then, if I give this extra roll to try and fill the child up, am I going to go over the cap of calories? It’s a fine line game for us.”

Local reform in other districts 

Nationally, other groups have worked to improve student access to fresh meals. The Factory Farming Awareness Coalition has taken on a national role in improving sustainable food systems.

Kiely Smith, Program Manager of the Advocacy Institute at the Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, said her group often attempts to get students to help enact change. 

“We have a lot of students who are part of the Advocacy Institute who will do some kind of advocacy project,” Smith said. “A couple of the nonprofits that we work with have helped empower our students to start campaigns on their campuses.”

Smith also said the Advocacy Institute has been successful at numerous schools including nearby Milpitas High School.

“Students through the Advocacy Institute have successfully worked on getting a meatless Monday and tried to increase the availability of plant-based foods on their campus,” Smith said. “We’ve seen new menus rolled out which really entails students working with their campus cafeteria a lot of times to make some improvements.”

Although budget restrictions and a lack of resources have kept PAUSD from improving their menu, other Bay Area districts have taken steps to upgrade their meals through different means.

In 2020, the Los Gatos-Saratoga Joint Union High School District contracted chef and nutritional consultant Paul Boundas to pioneer the process of serving entirely from-scratch meals for students.

Boundas, who has been working in the restaurant industry for over 10 years, said he uses his expertise to take a novel approach to school food services.

“We try to operate schools as if they’re restaurants,” Boundas said.  “That means getting rid of processed foods, cooking from scratch and bringing in trained people, chefs and food service staff.”

Boundas said most school programs, including PAUSD, are currently based on processed, rather than fresh food models, something that costs more money.

“Whole foods are a lot cheaper to buy than processed foods,” Boundas said. “For example, if you’re serving breaded chicken strips that are frozen and processed, those are $40 a box for a 10-pound box. But fresh chicken breasts or thighs for $40 will get us 40 pounds.”

However, Boundas said while the ingredients for making fresh meals may cost less money, they require more workers. 

“There are seven or eight people in this one kitchen,” Boundas said. “They have a manager, a head cook and cafeteria assistants.”

According to Spence, although PAUSD has hired a manager, the district is not able to shift to Los Gatos’s model quite yet. 

“There are multiple reasons for that,” Spence said. “You can bring the chef in, but you’re still going to have to get the level of the staff up to the level of a restaurant.”

Looking forward, Dowell said the district is constructing additional kitchens to minimize the need for transferring meals from school to school. 

However, Dowell said reform takes time, and Paly and JLS will remain the primary kitchens for now. 

But help may be on the way. Leve said the district announced at the last board meeting that it may consider bringing in outside resources for food services. 

“It was recently put in the new budget for next year that there was actually ($180,000) put in for nutritional consultants,” Leve said. 

Spence remains optimistic that PAUSD will achieve a food service model like Los Gatos has one day. 

“We can do it,” Spence said. “But it will be in place when some of these students that are asking for the Los Gatos quality will be in college.” 



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