As a picky eater, choosing what to have at lunch isn’t always easy for Braden River High School senior Kelis Melendez.
She used to hate school lunches but as she grew up, her taste buds changed and she tried to eat healthier.
When she walked into the cafeteria Jan. 24, Melendez had a plethora of options.
Did she want a salad? Chicken sandwich? Burger? Buffalo chicken wrap? Chicken strips? BBQ pulled pork? Pizza?
Due to state and U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, the School District of Manatee County’s Food and Nutrition Services must follow, each of the options must adhere to certain nutritional standards.
But following those regulations has given students more options.
Eventually, Melendez made her choice. She picked the BBQ pulled pork, and after tasting it, she said she loved it.
At Braden River High, she has grown to love school meals. She said she always can find something she wants.
Aaron DePaola, the cafeteria manager at Braden River High, said Food and Nutrition Services tries to offer something every student wants, no matter his or her taste or desire.
“If you’re not nourished, you’re not going to perform well in class,” DePaola said. “It’s a symbiotic relationship between us, the administration and the school. We try to keep as many options as we can because we want more kids to eat before they’re in class.”
There’s a science to putting together every meal.
Food and Nutrition Services follows guidelines that say each high school student should have a minimum of two ounces of protein every day and a cup of fruit or vegetables.
Skye Grundy, a registered dietitian and supervisor of student nutrition for the School District of Manatee County, said she receives phone calls from parents saying their child isn’t getting enough food.
Grundy explains that students are able to get a protein, grain, two selections of fruits, three selections of vegetables and a carton of milk. For example, a student could get a chicken sandwich, which would be the protein and grain, as well as watermelon and a box of 100% juice, cucumbers, hot beans, carrots and a carton of milk.
Most times if students are hungry, it’s because they aren’t choosing their fruits and vegetables, Grundy said.
That's why the district experiments with different foods that the students want. That experimenting began to build before COVID-19 hit but was cut back during the pandemic. It now has ramped up once again.
Food and Nutrition Services works with name brand vendors, such as Pillsbury, Dominos, Tyson and Kellogg.
Dominos delivers freshly made pizza every day to high schools, and each slice is made healthier than a typical Dominos pizza. The slices have 51% whole grain crusts with turkey pepperoni and a low fat mozzarella.
The district then checks feedback to see feedback to see if the students like it, and are choosing it.
Grundy said Braden River High usually goes through 300 servings of chicken tenders, but if more students began choosing something else, like the pulled pork that was served Jan. 24, the staff could adjust the menu.
As students progress through the grades, there are more options in the cafeterias.
Salad bars at high schools have been a hit among students. Although Isabelle Handel, a junior at Braden River High, usually brings lunch from home, when she does buy her lunch she said the salad bar is her go-to lunch option because of the health factor.
Grundy said Food and Nutrition Services tries to keep up with national trends as well.
When KFC started offering a popcorn chicken bowl, Food and Nutrition Services decided to serve its own popcorn chicken bowl, albeit with some healthier ingredients.
Food and Nutrition Services staff members then listen and gauge students’ interests in the new foods. For example, spicy foods like hot Cheetos and spicy chicken tenders have become popular at Braden River High.
Sometimes, food options aren't always a hit.
Grundy said fish tacos, chili, flatbreads, quesadillas and country fried steak are some of the foods the district tried to serve, but the students wouldn't eat them, so they were taken off the menu.
Feedback has indicated that students have been looking for more ethnically diverse options, so a beef gyro on pita bread was put on the menu. DePaola said the gyros didn't sell immediately, but last semester sales began to increase.
Lexman Pirela, a Braden River High senior from Venezuela, would like to see more Hispanic foods, especially Venezuelan foods. The district tries to accommodate those requests.
The high school cafeterias also offer a "bar-style menu" every Thursday, which is the fan-favorite.
The “bar days” give students an experience similar to restaurants like Blaze Pizza and Chipotle where students can choose all the ingredients in their meal. Cafeterias rotate through a fiesta bar, pasta bar, Asian bar and a tater tot bar. Students are able to choose what they want, and it’s prepared in front of them.
The pasta bar is Pirela's favorite. He loves to put chicken and parmesan cheese in his pasta. He said it's a large portion, which he likes because as a baseball and track athlete, he needs a lot to be full.
DePaola said when preparing for a new school year, he looks at the trends in the cafeteria from the previous year to check the popular items. He said by November, his staff usually has a good gauge on what students like.
Grundy said that for breakfast, the district is planning to try out mini chicken biscuits like the ones found at Chick-fil-A during National School Breakfast Week March 4-8.
The district has been pleased with the results of its efforts. Pirela said sometimes it's difficult to choose what to have for lunch because there are several good options.
Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.