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A 57-Cent School Lunch that Kids Love? You Bet!

January 30, 2014
William Humphrey
William Humphrey

William Humphrey, an adult student, writes about a real-world school-lunch challenge he took on in a nutrition class.

As a part of a senior-level class, Experimental Foods, my partner and I were challenged to develop a bean lunch entree for a local elementary school. The final product needed to cost less than 57 cents per serving, meet new, aggressive National School Lunch Program nutritional targets, be suitable for large-scale production, and, perhaps most challengingly, be palatable for children ages 7 to 12.

The semester-long development process involved numerous rounds of preparation, analysis, and reformulation in the KSC Foods Lab.

Food Processor SQL software helped us to efficiently determine the nutritional effects of recipe changes at each step in the process and then each variation was produced and evaluated. We were also afforded the opportunity to produce samples of the item at the elementary school and receive feedback from the students. At the conclusion of our project the Mighty Mexican Quesadilla was served as the lunch entree to more than 220 elementary students, and our recipe will be considered by the Keene school district’s food service director for possible inclusion as a regular menu option.

As I’m the parent of a picky first grader, this experience drove home the challenge faced by public schools trying to design nutritious, affordable meals that students want. The nutritional standards of the National School Lunch Program, a $15 billion program that served 100,000 schools and 31 million students in 2012, are undergoing a multi-year transition to improve the nutritional quality of student meals and combat rising rates of childhood obesity. Designing successful menus in that environment will require future school food service professionals who understand food production, food composition, and nutrition.

This experience has absolutely inspired me to consider a future in school food service: Esoteric classroom discussion about physical activity, nutrition, food security, and public policy became very real when hundreds of hungry children lined up to accept the food that we designed and prepared.