Lunchtime Solutions caters to students' tastes by M. Jill Karolevitz Cartoon-character lunch boxes with matching thermos jugs are just a memory, thanks to school meals offered by services such as Lunchtime Solutions, which operates the school breakfast and lunch program for the Vermillion School District.
Lunchtime Solutions, which began serving meals to students in Vermillion last year, is managed locally by Amy Lundgren, group food service director. The company�s philosophy is to please its customers � the students.
�We view students as our customers � a concept that isn�t always the case in food service,� Lundgren said. �Our goal is to be creative when it comes to planning our menus for the kids. While doing that, we also need to stay within the federal nutritional guidelines spelled out by the USDA. It�s a challenge, but offering a wide variety of choices is the key.�
Breakfast choices throughout the school year at Austin, Jolley and the middle school include cereal, cinnamon rolls, pancakes and sausage, donuts or French toast. At lunchtime, students dine on roast turkey, sub sandwiches, sloppy joes, barbecue pork sandwiches, chicken strips, tacos, super nachos, spaghetti, cheeseburgers or Domino�s Pizza.
�That�s the overwhelming favorite � pizza,� Lundgren said. �We offer it every Friday for the high school and middle school students, while the elementary kids have pizza once a month. That will stay the same this year. We have also been talking with other fast food places for the possibility of offering more of a ?branded concept�.�
But lunch is much more than a main course. Side dishes include vegetables such as green beans, corn or peas and potatoes.
�Sometimes we have a dessert, and they also get to choose whatever kind of milk they like � 1 percent, skim or chocolate,� Lundgren said. �That goes over big.�
Students at each school can also partake of all the fruits and vegetables they want at the fruit and veggie bar. Ala carte snack items are offered as well, including fruit roll-ups, bagels, nutri-grain bars, hot pretzels and chips.
Lundgren said several changes will take place this coming school year for the lunch program.
�Elementary school students will have a traditional lunch item, along with fruity yogurt offered as a second entree choice,� she said. �We�ve discovered kids love yogurt and we wanted to give them that option. They will also have choices from the fruit and veggie bar, along with milk.�
With this year�s purchase of a deep fat frier at Vermillion Middle School, students there will be able to choose French fries from the ala carte menu.
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However, they must first purchase a student lunch before enjoying any ala carte snack. At both the middle and high schools, students have an entree choice, along with a full soup and salad bar. High school students will also see an additional variety of fried foods, including cheese balls, mozzarella sticks and chicken nuggets.
�It�s my hope that the addition of these hot food items will bring in more students to participate in the program,� Lundgren said.
Lundgren also hopes that more students participate in the breakfast program.
�Unfortunately, we�re competing with before school playground time,� she said. �Kids are too busy socializing to come in for breakfast. We hope, however, that more parents urge their children to eat in the morning.�
In addition to food selections, changes have taken place in equipment and personnel.
�A generator has been purchased for the truck to plug in the hot food carts,� Lundgren said. �We�ve had some trouble with losing temperature as the food is transported from the middle school and this will help alleviate the problem.�
A second cashier will be on staff at Vermillion High School, she added.
�This will help speed up the service,� Lundgren said. �We�re going to move the ala carte items, too, in order to deter theft. We found that was a problem last year. They will now be located behind the cashiers instead of out in the open.�
Although milk prices will remain the same this year at 30 cents per carton, a price change for meals was recently approved by the Vermillion School Board. Lunch for students in kindergarten through grade five will now cost $1.70 per meal. Sixth- through twelfth-grade students will pay $1.80. Adult meals are now $2.15.
�They�ve all gone up a nickel,� Lundgren said. �Our labor and food costs increased 3 percent, so we had to factor that in to be able to put out our product.�
Lundgren added that the school district�s �zero balance� policy will remain in effect. When an account balance is low, students will receive three reminders to bring lunch money. When an account is too low for the purchase of a lunch, all purchases will stop.
�No student will go hungry, though,� Lundgren said. �If a student is unable to charge a student lunch, they will be allowed to make a peanut butter sandwich, have a free milk and fruit. But we do encourage parents to make sure there is money in the lunch account.�
Account statements will be provided weekly in the homeroom for elementary students to take home. In addition, Lunchtime Solutions will mail out account statements at a minimum of once per month.
Lunchtime Solutions met with positive reviews during its debut year in Vermillion. Lundgren credits that to communication.
�We have a food service advisory council made up of parents, students and faculty,� she said. �They meet on a regular basis and anyone is invited to join. They help provide feedback to us on how the food service program is working and to advise us on what changes could be made to make it work better. I�ve also gone to the schools and talked with the students about what they like to eat. But this year, I�d like to do more. I�m planning on doing a formal survey to gather some concrete data about the menu and student likes and dislikes.�
Menus are not planned simply by student choice alone, however.
�Everything is within the USDA guidelines,� Lundgren said. �We have software that helps us do nutrient standard menu planning, in which the weekly total equals the guidelines. That gives us the flexibility to be creative.�
Lunchtime Solutions is based out of North Sioux City and serves 17 school districts in southeast and south central South Dakota, as well as Nebraska. The local school lunch operation is headquartered at Vermillion Middle School. Austin, Jolley and St. Agnes School have satellite kitchens, while 80 percent of the high school preparation takes place there.