Aging food service facilities pose challenges for the nutrition staff in the Mount Diablo Unified School District, which enrolls more than 31,000 children in suburban Contra Costa County, California. “Many of our kitchens and cafeterias were built 50 to 60 years ago, and some of the equipment is more than two decades old,” says Anna Fisher, director of food and nutrition services. At Ygnacio Valley Elementary School, the worn and dimly lit serving line made meals look lackluster and caused frequent frustration for staff. “Space was so limited that often we couldn’t display all the food and had to have someone stand at the door to pass it out,” Fisher recalls.
Using funds from a U.S. Department of Agriculture kitchen equipment grant, the district purchased a replacement serving counter to solve these problems and improve the appeal of school meals. The new, larger line includes heated and refrigerated serving wells to keep dishes at proper temperatures, a salad bar, and under-counter lights that help colorful produce and other foods look their best. The upgrade has enabled staff to adopt techniques that researchers at Cornell University’s Smarter Lunchrooms Movement have shown promote healthy choices, such as placing produce toward the front of the line and letting children serve themselves. Ygnacio Valley’s nutrition team is already seeing evidence of success from these practices.
“Children are taking and eating more fruits and vegetables because they can actually see how beautiful the food is and get to it easily,” says Megan Webb, the school’s food service manager, who has to order more produce to keep up with kids’ changing appetites.
Now that the lunch line can accommodate more food, Webb and her colleagues do not need to resort to using as many prepackaged meals and pre-portioned servings to save space. The staff can prepare more of the daily menu from scratch, and for many dishes, students can control their own portion sizes, which encourages them to sample unfamiliar foods and reduces food waste.
“We’re able to give kids the variety they love and present meals in a way that shows how much we really care about them and the food we’re cooking,” says Fisher. "The right equipment opens up so many possibilities.”