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Riverhead’s new school cafeterias providing fresher options

Riverhead School District

Students lined up in the new cafeteria at Pulaski Street Elementary School last Thursday, cardboard trays in hand and eager to enjoy the lunch of the day: chicken fajitas.

The district’s two new cafeterias, at Roanoke and Pulaski, were completed in time for the start of this school year and now allow students to enjoy fresher and healthier meal options. The industrial kitchens were built as part of the $78.3 million bond voters approved in 2011, district food services manager Keith Graham said.

In previous years, meals for all students in the district were prepared at the high school and then transported to each individual building, Mr. Graham said. Because the food had to be moved between locations, entire meals needed to fit into easy-to-carry packages, which limited what the district could offer.

“When it had to be sent over, it was hard to transport,” he said. “You kind of had to pick and choose what you could fit. Now they can grab one tray, grab four or five things, maybe a side or something extra.”

The kitchens also include new equipment, including larger refrigerators, double ovens and metal pots, which were used to cook rice for last Thursday’s lunch.

In addition to fajitas, new meal options include, but aren’t limited to, tacos, various salads, a broccoli side in garlic butter sauce and additional fruit and vegetable choices, many from local vendors, Mr. Graham said.

He plans to introduce more options as the school year continues. But rather than unveil them all at once, he plans to roll them out over time, as the staff adjusts to working in the new cafeteria spaces.

Tacos have been the most popular option so far, Mr. Graham said.

“It’s good, it’s different,” he said. “When we had spinach salad on the menu last week a lot of kids had never had spinach salad. They see greens, it’s got tomatoes in it, so they get to try that.”

The district’s efforts are consistent with guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which announced Tuesday that President Obama has declared Oct. 11-14 National School Lunch Week and designated October as Farm to School Month.

The fresher, more varied lunch options now available in the district continue to provide students with federally mandated access to whole grains, protein, vegetables and fruits.

But healthier food choices aren’t the only new things being introduced in school cafeterias this year.

The district is also in the process of switching from plastic foam plates placed on plastic trays to cardboard plates with built-in dividers. These plates make it easier for children to plate and carry their food, Mr. Graham said.

Three elementary schools — Roanoke, Phillips and Aquebogue — also introduced the Community Eligibility Provision program last year, a national program that allows districts with large populations of low-income students to serve breakfast and lunch to all enrolled students free of charge, deputy superintendent Sam Schneider said.

The district is reimbursed for the cost of those meals using a formula based on the percentage of students participating in other need-based programs, he said.

“Just because you’re getting it for free, you’re not getting any less of any meal,” Mr. Graham said of CEP, as well as the district’s free and reduced lunch program, which allows low-income families to apply for student lunches that are either free or priced at just 25 cents.

Even with new equipment, payment plans and lunch offerings, students and parents looking at the month’s lunch calendar will note that it also includes fresher versions of familiar staples like pizza and chicken nuggets.

The kitchen staff also serves breakfast every morning for students, offering more “grab-and-go” options like muffins, bagels, cereal and fruit.

Because the food is prepared in-house rather than brought in from another site and often reheated, it tastes better, Mr. Graham said. Preparing the food on-site also makes it possible to incorporate fresher ingredients in all meals.

So far this year, he said, has led to an increase in sales of hot lunch items and a drop in the number of sandwiches purchased at both Phillips and Roanoke schools.

“We want to provide all our students with a hot meal,” Mr. Graham said. “We want to give them more variety; we don’t want to offer the same thing every month.”

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Photo: Pulaski Street Elementary School fifth-grader William Garcia checks out the district’s new, fresher lunch options, made possible by the completion of a new cafeteria. (Credit: Nicole Smith)