By Kristin Schultz
NISKAYUNA — This fall, the kids will get back on the bus, and the food service program at Niskayuna’s elementary and middle schools will get back on the National School Lunch Program. High school students will see the return of the lunch cart and the ouster of soda machines.
In May, the federal government loosened school lunch program compliance requirements and returned a measure of control to local school districts. The eased restrictions combined with more program-compliant options from vendors were factors in the Niskayuna district’s decision to re-enroll for kindergarten through eighth grade.
Students and parents will notice minor changes in the cafeterias. There are five components of a meal offered in each lunch: milk, grain, meat or meat alternative, fruit and vegetable.
As part of the national program which along with other goals aims to emphasize healthy food choices, students will be required to take at least one fruit or vegetable with lunch.
Going back into the program for the first time since 2013 will give the district access to federal funds that will help sustain its food service program, which has struggled financially in the interim.
While the high school will not participate in the National School Lunch Program, there will be changes to the food service program. Most notably, soda machines are out and the lunch cart is in.
In conforming to the Smart Snacks requirements, the district has removed soda machines from buildings. Last year, the machines were on timers that did not allow purchases during school hours, but this year they have been removed altogether.
The cafeteria cart will be back in the halls for 2017-18. Due to staffing shortages last year, the grab-and-go lunch options were parked. With the shortage resolved, the mobile cart will again roll through the halls offering salads, sandwiches and sushi to students too pressed to get to class to eat in the cafeteria. Rolling hot boxes with other options will also make an appearance.
Students will notice changes to the stock in vending machines and cafeteria snack selections as well. Across the grade levels, non-compliant snacks will not be available for purchase. That doesn’t mean no sweets, but kids in all the buildings may have to satisfy that sweet tooth with an oatmeal cookie instead of Oreos.
“We’re not getting rid of [snacks] completely,” said Suzanne Wixom, the district’s food services director. “Parents will still be able to control the snacks their children buy.”
The department’s computer system allows parents to dictate when their student can have snacks. For example, if parents only wants their fourth-grader to have a snack on Thursday, the food service team can put a note on the child’s account. If the student tries to buy a snack on Wednesday, staff can refuse the sale and remind the student that he or she can purchase that cookie the following day.
“We want to work toward a high-nutrition standard,” Wixom said. “Nutrition for kids is a huge topic and we strive to offer better and more nutritious food and meet the needs of our customers.”
As the year unfolds, Wixom said students can expect more scratch-made items like a vegetarian chili that she said was very popular last winter. Proteins with international flare will also come back as will the sushi options for certain grade levels.
“In the beginning of the year, they’re not going to see huge changes in the menus,” Wixom said. “As the year goes on, they’ll see more and more scratch-cooking recipes used.”
In addition, the smoothie club program piloted at Rosendale Elementary School will be rolled out to all the elementary buildings.
All the schools have and will continue to participate in the School Breakfast Program.
The district pulled out of the federal program in spring of 2013 due to the sudden implementation of strict guidelines and incompatible processes.
“We tried it but were doing quite a bit of scratch cooking and we didn’t feel it was right for us,” said Wixom.
The district will provide further information to parents regarding changes to the food service program.