DEARBORN — Dearborn Public Schools overhauled its school menu this year. Students are in for a more diverse menu, more options every day, more fresh produce, and more made-from-scratch meals.
Parents will see menus that are easier to find and understand – right down to being able to look up possible allergens and even carb counts online for every dish.
The changes come after the district hired Southwest Foodservice Excellence to help oversee the food service program. The company has provided nutritionists and chefs to help transition the district to a program with a much more expansive and fresh-from-scratch menu, including training the District staff on how to cook these meals.
In addition, SFE will help improve food service operational, procurement and financial tracking systems and reinforce nutritional and safety protocols. SFE works in 150 school districts around the country offering several employee management models. DPS employees will continue to run and staff the kitchens, working in partnership with SFE.
Students will see dramatic differences in this year’s menu, starting with more made-from-scratch meals, said Joshua Bain, SFE food service senior general manager.
“The district has been doing a lot of heat-and-eat because it was easy,” Bain said. “Now, everything will be handmade, down to the sandwiches.
“We will actually spread peanut butter on bread. More than 75 percent of SFE’s offerings are fresh-from-scratch.”
The first short week of school shows the changes. Students will be offered orange chicken with rice, Thai veggie stir fry, and beef tacos. Elementary schools will offer at least three entrée items each day, middle schools four to six, and high schools six to eight.
In previous years, elementary schools offered only one other option, the same vegetarian second choice for the entire week.
All the meat served in Dearborn will be halal. Before, some schools offered all halal, while others had a mix, which contributed to confusion about which menu was being served at which school.
Parents of picky eaters should not panic – the menu still includes kid favorites like macaroni and cheese, and chicken nuggets. Children also will have a chance to sample new things.
“Every single K-12 school will have an option for fruit and vegetable bars,” Bain said.
The bars will be included in the lunch, instead of a separate a la carte item as it was at some schools.
The district hired more staff to help with the cooking, and employees recently spent four days training on the new menus. Kitchen equipment also was upgraded with more knives, cutting boards, measuring cups and mixing bowls so staff in every kitchen could cook from scratch, Bain said. One of the biggest additions is immersion blenders so staff can make items like smoothies and eventually hummus.
The breakfast options will now include handmade elements like yogurt parfaits, in addition to the familiar cereal boxes and fruit.
Last school year, DPS began offering free lunch and breakfast to all kindergarten through 12th grade students across the district. The meals were provided through a special community qualification program offered through the USDA school lunch program. DPS served 2 million school lunches last school year, up from 1.8 million the previous year. Breakfasts increased to 684,049, up from 646,901 the previous year.
DPS has about 20,700 students.
Bain said that for the first few months this year, the menu will reflect what SFE knows works in other districts across the country. As information comes back on what Dearborn students prefer, the menu will be tweaked. Bain’s chefs also will work on items that might be popular locally, such as fresh-from-scratch hummus.
Menus will be available through the Nutrislice software. Nutrislice also offers an app so parents can check what meal is being offered and see nutrition information for each meal. The links include details like calories, protein and potential allergens such as dairy and wheat. The first menus are already posted at https://dearbornschools.nutrislice.com/menu.
Lunches still meet stringent federal nutritional requirements. Meals must meet regulations for items such as dairy, whole grains, total calories and certain nutrients.
“Fat is regulated, and sodium is regulated. Flavor is not,” Bain said.
Meeting those requirements, while trying to serve a variety of flavorful food, is part of what led the district to bring in an outside food service company to share its expertise. SFE’s fees, and all other food service costs, are paid for from meal sales and federal reimbursements. General fund dollars are not used for food service.
Supt. Glenn Maleyko said improving the menu offerings was often requested by his Student Advisory Council. Improving the menu became even more significant with last year’s switch to free meals across the district.
“We are glad to have SFE on board and look forward to our students enjoying some fresh, flavorful meals this year,” Maleyko said. “Getting our students appealing meals is important not just to make them happy. We know good nutrition and good health improve student performance and overall quality of life.”