The North Carolina state budget, which passed on Sept. 22, permanently eliminated the reduced-price lunch copay, meaning students who qualify for reduced-price school meals will now receive them for free. Orange County Schools child nutrition director Sara Pitts said this state funding is helpful but inflation has raised the costs of food and labor, making it difficult for OCS to profit from school meals.
“We have to be very, very, very conscientious about our purchases because everything is on a very tight budget,” Pitts said.
Pitts said OCS is working to incorporate more fresh fruits, local foods and from-scratch cooking, but that those additions are dependent on cost. She also said OCS is working through recipes with the district’s registered dietitian to see how they can cook more meals in-house.
Marianne Weant, programs manager at the North Carolina Alliance for Health has five children in the Wake County Public School System who eat school meals every day.
“I would love to see school meals be more adequately funded so that the child nutrition workers can engage in more creativity and more scratch cooking,” Weant said.
Pitts said OCS aims to tailor their food options to student preferences while meeting federal school nutrition guidelines. Along with those two important factors, she said they have to consider cost.
“If there's something that's trending that a restaurant is selling, and it's a hot ticket item, then we want to try to mirror that and make it as healthy as an option in our school setting as we can,” she said.
For example, OCS students have the option of choosing a bento box, which is a combination of items in one container for students to grab-and-go. Pitts said this mirrors pre-packaged foods like Lunchables, allowing OCS to serve popular foods within a budget.
Pitts also said the OCS incorporates taste-testing when piloting new items. At breakfast or lunch, they sometimes set up a table with bite-sized samples of their new recipe to gauge student response.