I’ve lived in the Burns Park School district in Ann Arbor for a number of years. Recently, a lot of news articles have discussed federal regulations concerning school lunches and how they have been implemented and received in schools throughout the country. These have made me curious about the lunch program at Burns Park and throughout the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS). So I received permission to visit and observe the lunch hour at Burns Park.

The fruit and vegetable bar, offering apples, cucumbers, applesauce, carrots,
and chick-pea salad. Burns Park Elementary School, October 1, 2015.
US Dept. of Agriculture requires that school lunches include fruit and vegetables.

Lunch lasts 25 minutes for pupils at Burns Park School, with three seatings to accommodate 470 pupils in Kindergarten through 5th grade. The lunch line goes very fast: I doubt if it was more than 5 minutes from the moment when the first impatient kid got in line until everyone was seated with their trays or with lunch boxes and beginning to eat. For the first 15 minutes or so, the kids seemed pretty absorbed in eating, though they were socializing all the time as well. Some got up to take more applesauce or cucumbers. By the last 5 minutes, the noise level was noticeably rising, and I think they were really ready for their half-hour of outside play time!

Today’s lunch: hot dogs, corn, and choices from the fruit and vegetable bar.
Chuck Hatt, Burns Park School Principal, greets each child by name as he dispenses catsup or mustard for their hot dogs.
When the bell for lunch rings, he says “I’m on!”

The weekly lunch menu from the school district’s webpage — my visit was on Thursday.

Food and service for the Ann Arbor Public School program are supplied by a unit of Chartwells, an international corporation, under a contract for the school year. (ChartwellsWebpage here.) At the lunch I observed, a serving of corn was included with every hot dog, meeting the USDA requirement. Children were allowed to make their own choice among the other fruits and vegetables. Chartwells has been the AAPS lunchroom supplier since 2007.

Chartwells also participates in the “Farm to School” program using Michigan growers to supply produce; the program also sponsors school vegetable gardens. Today’s apples came from one of several Michigan orchards and cucumbers from Ruhlig Farms in Carleton, MI. “Using local food in our school food service also supports local and regional farms in their efforts to be sustaining contributors to our local economy. Chartwells provides Michigan-grown produce in all AAPS cafeterias,” says Heather Holland, Director of Dining Services, AAPS.

Meals at Burns Park School are mainly prepared in a small kitchen adjacent to the cafeteria. For example, the hot dogs were heated in the oven and placed in buns by a Chartwell’s employee, who also dishes out the hot dogs and corn to the lunch line, and replenishes the fruit and vegetable bar. If the menu included stovetop preparations, such as boiling pasta, the cooking would be done at the larger, more fully equipped kitchen at Pioneer High School around a mile away, and brought to Burns Park for final prep. Both breakfast and lunch are served in the cafeteria, but I only visited at lunchtime.

School meals, as I mentioned, get a lot of attention nationwide — especially the requirement that fruit and vegetables be a major part of school nutrition programs, which became Department of Agriculture policy in 2012. A recent article in the New York Timessaid:

“Food and nutrition directors at school districts nationwide say that their trash cans are overflowing while their cash register receipts are diminishing as children either toss out the healthier meals or opt to brown-bag it. While no one argues that the solution is to scrap the law and go back to feeding children junk, there’s been a movement to relax a few of the guidelines as Congress considers whether to reauthorize the legislation, particularly mandates for 100 percent whole grains and extremely low sodium levels, so school meals will be a bit more palatable and reflective of culinary traditions.” (“Why Students Hate School Lunches,” Kate Murphy, September 26, 2015)

Reporters and authors of studies of school meals seem to me to be somewhat obsessed by the topic of children throwing away the fruit and vegetables from their lunches. At Burns Park School, I did see kids eating only part of their lunch — some left the hot dog, some left the bun. I saw a lot of the corn being left on their trays and discarded. But I also saw them eating and seeming to enjoy applesauce, apples, and also cucumbers, which they were dipping in ranch dressing. I saw only one child take a portion of chickpea salad from the vegetable and fruit bar. Quite a few kids were going back for seconds: unlike many school districts the Ann Arbor program allows return visits to the lunch line for more fruit and vegetables — but not more hot dogs.

While a lot of fruit and vegetables from the lunch trays did go in the trash, I also saw a lot of kids throwing away whole wrapped items or half-eaten items from the lunch boxes they brought from home. And I wonder: is this just the way kids act when no one is coercing them to clean their plates?

Another recent article illustrates the focus on food thrown away rather than on food that’s eaten: they observed that more fruit and vegetables were tossed away now — more than before the program started. As far as the article reported, the study didn’t actually observe what the kids ate, only what they wasted. (“Children Tossing School Lunch Fruits and Vegetables,”Nicholas Bakalar, New York Times, September 7, 2015)

As the kids finish lunch and dump their trash, they are supposed to sort the recyclables from the other garbage. In a few weeks, when everyone is more adjusted to the new school year, Principal Chuck Hatt says there will be fifth graders wearing gloves who serve as the “Green Team” helping to keep the cafeteria clean and make sure the trash is properly sorted.

Vegetarian option: hummus, pita, and grapes. I only saw one of these chosen.
Kids like hot dogs!

Could the food be better? Healthier? Tastier? I’m sure it could, but I’m not sure how much better, considering the constraints of pleasing varied tastes and backgrounds, meeting government mandates, using USDA donated food (which is covered in the AAPS-Chartwells contract, though I don’t know any details), and meeting very stringent cost requirements. I think the trend away from junk food in schools is overall a good one.

Lunch boxes from home contained a variety of foods.
Of 470 pupils in the school, around 120 buy the school lunch,
and the rest bring lunch from home. Over 50% of purchased meals are subsidized.

After they finish eating, kids have another half hour to play outside.
Lining up to return to class after lunch.

I am grateful to Heather Holland, Director of Dining Services, AAPS;Andrew Cluley, Communications Specialist, AAPS; and PrincipalChuck Hatt,Burns Park School/AAPS, for arranging my visit, hosting me, and answering my questions about school lunches.

For all my posts on school lunches,including this one, CLICK HERE.