Students file quickly into the cafeteria at Southern Boone County Middle School in Ashland on Monday. Some sit down immediately with packed bag lunches, but most wait in line to buy lunch.
The line moves swiftly. Students sit down, some with nachos. Others eat chicken quesadillas or munch a chef salad served with fruit and homemade cookies.
For the first time, starting this fall, Ashland’s elementary, middle and high school students now have a wider — and healthier — food selection in their school lunch lines. Earlier this year, the Southern Boone County R-I and the Centralia R-VI school districts sought to save money by joining the majority of Missouri public school districts that contract the St. Louis-based Opaa Food Management for food service.
Centralia Superintendent Glenn Brown said the school board reviewed Opaa’s program and solicited input from the community.
The district lost money with its former food service provider and hired Opaa to save money. The school board also was anticipating smaller school budgets.
The Southern Boone County R-1 School Board in Ashland voted unanimously in May to contract with Opaa.
Kathy Diederich, director of food services for the district, said the board’s decision would save the district money and allow school officials to concentrate on education instead of food service.
Also, Opaa kept most of the kitchen employees in Centralia and Ashland who were formerly employed by the school districts, school officials said. Julie Begemann, a cook within the school district, said students are taking advantage of having more choices.
“There had been a lot of positive feedback from kids—from kids and parents,” she said. “Some kids always brought lunch, now they are eating here.”
Tammy Miller said her daughters, Logan, 8, and Lauren, 12, like the expanded food choices. Logan ate a lot more peanut butter and jelly last year, Miller said.
“The kids have more options —not only options, but healthy options,” she said.
Logan said chef salad is her favorite and that she usually drinks chocolate milk at lunch. She said she also likes wraps and the triangle-shaped pizza, which she says much better than last year’s square-cut slices.
The new food service program has attracted above-average numbers of students and employees to the lunch lines since the program started. More than 1,000 students and employees buy lunch every day, she said.
Steve Strup, the regional director of operations for Opaa, said the company provides options in hopes of getting more kids to eat healthy.
Opaa is required to meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines. Every day, a minimum of three meal options is offered in schools.
“Food service is a business to feed students as nutritionally as possible,” Strup said. “There are three choices. Hopefully they will eat at least one.”
Begemann, the cook in the Ashland school district, said some middle-school students complain because milk is the only beverage option and there are fewer a la carte items available.High school students have more options than younger students, including pizza, chicken sandwiches,all-natural juices and Gatorade.
Diederich said the staff in Ashland has worked hard and has spent time preparing the additional options.
“It has been stressful but successful,” she said.
Brown also said the program in Centralia has been “a strong success.”
Opaa coordinates all the menus and orders supplies, Strup said. The administration oversees the operation, but does not have to deal with it on a day to day basis, he said.
“The administration isn’t trained to do food service,” he said. “They are trained to educate.”