Education feature: Keeping students fed no easy feat

By Carrie Pendleton: PNT correspondent

The bell rings, and students shuffle into the cafeteria. They pay up, get served and eat. Then it’s back to class just like every other day.

What they don’t see is everything that falls into place for these meals to be produced. Many regulations, people and small details are involved in this process.

Currently, 2,802 students are enrolled in Portales schools. Shirley Chatterton, manager of the schools student nutrition program, said she is pleased the student meal participation has increased from 50 percent of student population to 70 percent in the last eight years since she took the job.

“Sometimes I don’t think that people realize the volume (of food) we serve” Chatterton said of the 3,600 meals her cooking staff produces each day.

Janice Stroud, kitchen manager for the high school, said the cooks take “pride in the preparation and appearance” of the foods they serve each day. The appearance of the meal is important because the cooks wouldn’t want students to have to eat something the cooks wouldn’t eat themselves, she said.

The cooks at the high school not only prepare meals for their students, but also children at Brown Early Childhood Center and three local daycare facilities.

Students have somewhat differing opinions of the lunches.

“They’re good for what the school is given to work with,” said Portales High freshman Marissa Mowrer. “I really like the apples and peanut butter.”

Brown Early Childhood Center kindergartner Trinity Mauldin had another idea.

“I like the fruit, but they cook nasty,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets many requirements public school menus must meet.

For example, according to USDA information, the total calories of the meals must be no more than 30 percent from fat and no more than 10 percent from saturated fat. The USDA regulates these calories to keep schools from adding to the national adolescent obesity problems, according to department information.

Lunch meals must provide one-third of the recommended daily allowances for protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories, according to the USDA. Meals served in schools are also required to stay within budgetary constraints and be appealing to students.

Each year, the Portales district receives around $75,000 worth of commodities Chatterton must incorporate into the meals, she said. The recipes cooks use to create meals are standardized by the USDA and are based on how many servings they will yield.

Minimum portion sizes are also regulated. In some cases, Chatterton said, Portales schools serve more than the minimum portions because older students tend to be hungrier.

Due to fuel price increases, the price for a lunch plate in Portales schools has risen in the last year from $1.25 to $1.50 for students not eligible for free or reduced lunches through the federal government. Chatterton said this cost is still below the state average.