Dan Ellnor walks through a metal door into a gigantic walk-in refrigerator at the Jefferson County Public Schools Nutrition Service Center. People in hairnets, gloves and light winter jackets are filtering in-and-out, carrying boxes of fresh produce.
“Yeah, what have we got?” Ellnor asks as he flicks open a box. “Zucchini — lots of zucchini.”
Ellnor is the manager of the Nutrition Service Center — which operates as a food storage facility and prep hub for the district schools. He and Lori Williams, who is the district coordinator for menus and special diets, say over the past several years, more produce than ever is being served on their school lunch lines.
“Probably more than you’re going to see at most districts,” Williams says. “We also have the farm-to-school program, so they may see farm-fresh apples, fresh kale greens, yellow watermelons, blueberries, whatever we can get in for the season, we try to do that.”
This has resulted in Jefferson County, along with 96 percent of school districts in the state, successfully serving meals that meet the USDA standards for strong nutrition.
But in order to do this, many of these same schools have to work around equipment and infrastructure challenges.
Take the produce being delivered to JCPS schools, for example.
“Our main challenge has been refrigeration with the the increased fruits and vegetables,” Ellnor says. “That takes up a lot more storage space.”
The schools also need new combination ovens to roast and steam instead of fry these foods, and sometimes they just need more physical space for food prep.
Kentucky Cafeteria Needs, By The Numbers
According to a study conducted by the PEW Charitable Trust, 89 percent of school districts in Kentucky, including JCPS, needed at least one new piece of equipment to better serve nutritious foods.
This isn’t just a Kentucky issue. According to the study, it’s a nationwide problem that affects 88 percent of U.S. school districts.
And for school districts, addressing this problem is an expensive proposition. The median cost to meet these needs would be about $50,000 per school, which is tough considering how public school cafeterias are funded.
“No local tax dollars go to feed kids; it is a completely federal grant program,” Ellnor says. “That’s important to understand because we operate like a business. If we don’t make money, we can’t reinvest in the program.”
Ellnor says the program is federally reimbursed at differing rates when they provide meals to students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, but for most districts, money is still really tight.
According to Ellnor, this is where federal grants — like the USDA Equipment Assistance Grants — come into play. Essentially, the state is given a lump sum of money, districts will send in proposals for different schools based on need, and the money will be blindly awarded.
He says this grant program has been a big help. Last year, JCPS was awarded $100,000. This was split between five schools and spent on a walk-in freezer, two combination ovens, a walk-in cooler and a serving line.
Need for Increased Federal Funding
But national school nutrition advocates, like Donna Martin, say federal funding for school cafeteria upgrades still needs to be improved because the need across the country is so immense.
Martin is a school nutrition director in Georgia and the current national president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is referring to the School Food Modernization Act.
Right now, Martin is in the midst of a country-wide tour of school cafeterias to assess need.
“When we went to Erie, Pennsylvania, they are more than 50 percent free and reduced,” Martin says. “So they could apply to get a combi oven in their school, but they don’t have the electrical capability in their school to hook up a combi oven.”
So the cost to rewire the school would be on the program or the district, and there is no funding for that.
“With the School [Food] Modernization Act that’s out there, what they are saying is that you could get low-cost loans so that you get money, so that you could things like that,” Martin says.
Martin says the legislation would also allow schools to apply for more than one equipment grant. Right now, if a school is awarded a grant, they can never apply again.
She also says that currently, only schools serving a population of 50 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch can apply for equipment assistance — something she thinks needs to be changed.
Martin and other advocates are pushing for the bill’s passage, but in the meantime, both she and Ellnor hope students and parents consider the work behind the school cafeteria lines.
“Everyone has eaten a school lunch, so they kind of take ownership of that,” Ellnor says. “But they don’t think about what goes into putting it on the plate.”