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Thursday, June 12, 2014

No more Papa John’s for lunch? That might come true in Wichita schools next year

By Suzanne Perez Tobias
The Wichita Eagle

One of the most popular lunch entrees at Wichita middle and high schools — slices of pizza from Papa John’s or CiCi’s – may disappear, at least temporarily, from cafeterias next school year.

As school districts begin to decipher new food guidelines just released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, schools will be “more limited in which products we can use,” said Vicki Hoffman, director of nutrition services for Wichita schools.

“We have not yet received any guidance from the USDA on whether we can accept the (nutrition) documentation the delivery pizza companies would be able to provide,” Hoffman said.

“We’re now at the point that we have to plan to buy (prepackaged, heat-and-eat) pizza to serve in place of delivery pizza.”

The absence of those ubiquitous cardboard boxes may be the most noticeable and talked-about change in school lunch lines next year, but it won’t be the only one.

New federal guidelines that go into effect this fall will mark the first major nutritional overhaul of school meals in more than 15 years. Wichita schools have made incremental changes over the past few years — serving more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and less fat and sodium, for instance — but menu offerings will continue to evolve, Hoffman said.

Right now the district’s primary challenge is logistical. Officials are having to plan menus, solicit bids, estimate quantities and buy products without specific guidelines about which foods will meet federal nutrition requirements.

Schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program must make sure their menus follow federal guidelines in order to receive funding for low-cost or free lunches. Wichita, the state’s largest district with nearly 50,000 students, serves about 33,000 lunches and 10,000 breakfasts each school day.

Cheryl Johnson, director of child nutrition and wellness for the Kansas Department of Education, said she expects school districts to receive and begin deciphering the new federal guidelines this week. But that’s already too late for many districts.

“We are two months behind where we need to be,” said Darren Muci, director of operations for Wichita schools. “We were expecting them in January, in February, in March … and we still don’t have them.”

District spokeswoman Susan Arensman said Hoffman finally received the guidelines Saturday.

“We’re trying now to review and understand the new guidelines. Getting them at the end of April still causes problems” with meal planning and purchasing, she said.

Because of the delay, Wichita school board members last week gave blanket approval for $10 million worth of “consumable food and foodstuffs” for the fall semester rather than approving each purchase separately.

“Nothing will change. … We will still solicit competitive bids for our food purchases,” Muci said. “This will allow us to get bids out and back and make purchases” by mid- to late May, after which board members will get more specific information, he said.

Meanwhile, Hoffman and her staff continue to plan. School meals are moving from a nutrient-based system, where officials looked at the amounts of protein, fiber, vitamins and so forth in each product, to a “food-based” one, she said. That means school menus — each day and over the course of a week — must include certain servings of meat or meat alternates, whole grains, green leafy vegetables and more.

And that’s where the problem with delivery pizza comes in, Hoffman said: Most pizza companies don’t evaluate their products based on “grain units” or document precisely how many federal-standard servings of dairy product are in a slice of cheese pizza.

“We know it’s a very popular item in our lunches,” she said. “Right now we’re just waiting on guidance.”

This school year, through a partnership with local Papa John’s and CiCi’s franchises, Wichita middle and high schools offer delivery pizza as a lunch option two days each month.

Another change coming to Wichita cafeterias next fall has nothing to do with nutritional guidelines but everything to do with your peas not touching your mashed potatoes.

Hoffman said the district plans to replace its white foam serving trays with ones that are biodegradable and have taller dividers between each food compartment.

“Anyone who has kids knows they don’t like baked-bean juice running into other items,” she said. “This is a little change, but it’s one we think our students will appreciate.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com.

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