FD schools celebrate National School Lunch Week
Without proper nutrition and meals to keep their bellies full and their brains energized, students have a hard time succeeding in the classroom.
That’s where the 55 food service employees at the Fort Dodge Community School District come in — making sure each student has access to a healthy and filling breakfast and lunch each day.
To honor school food service staff across the country, this week is National School Lunch Week.
The food service department at the FDCSD is contracted through Taher and is led by Chef Director Nick Sells. Sells has been with Taher and the district for 15 years, and this is his second year as chef director.
A typical day for the district’s food service staff starts at 6:30 in the morning, when they prepare breakfast for students who eat at school. The last kitchen staff leave for the day around 2:30 p.m., Sells said.
The district has four production kitchens across several buildings that cater to the remaining buildings in the district. The production kitchens are at the Early Childhood Center, Duncombe Elementary School, Fort Dodge Senior High and Fort Dodge Middle School.
The FDMS kitchen is the largest, serving most of the entrees for the district’s five elementary schools, Sells said.
At the middle school, students always have at least five options to choose from for lunch — three hot and two cold. At the high school, students have about nine options each day, Sells said.
In September, the FDCSD served more than 22,000 breakfasts and more than 57,000 lunches during the month
On average, 2,730 lunches are served each day in the FDCSD.
The average cost of groceries, including milk, is $20,500 for a week of school breakfast and lunch at the FDCSD.
Taher and the district are focused on providing fresh, high-quality food for students. At the ECC, Butler Elementary School and Duncombe Elementary School, each student in each class also receives some kind of fresh fruit or veggie as part of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.
“We’ve been trying to do a lot more scratch cooking,” Sells said. “As far as our bakery, we make our own hoagie buns.”
The food service department has been doing a lot of new salads for students to try.
“We’re trying to give them new sights of food and how they can experience it in different ways,” Sells said.
The cafeterias will also feature special treats for holidays and other big events. For Valentine’s Day, they had chocolate-covered strawberries.
To celebrate the end of the school year last year, Sells cooked two whole hogs for the FDMS students.
“It was super awesome,” he said. “And then I cut the heads off and I put them on display at the middle school and it was really cool.”
Sells hopes to expose students to where their food comes from and shift their perspective on what they eat.
Navigating the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been easy on the food service staff at FDCSD, but they pushed through, knowing many of the kids depended on the meals they receive from school.
When schools shut down in the spring of 2020, the food service department continued to provide lunch for students throughout the rest of the spring and into the summer. During the 2020-2021 school year, the department also provided lunch to the district’s at-home learners, and continues to do so for the Virtual Academy students again this year.
Something Sells is having to navigate through right now are the supply chain issues much of the country is facing. So far, he’s been able to make adjustments to orders and accommodate shortages of items when he’s had to.
“Hopefully there never comes a point where I have to completely switch the menu or anything like that,” he said.
To help further broaden kids’ horizons, the food service department offers infused water and has smoothie machines at FDSH and FDMS. At the high school, the cafeteria also has iced coffee available a la carte.
Sells uses a computer program filled with Taher’s recipe bank to build the district’s menu each month. The menu is sent to Taher to be checked by a dietician to make sure there’s not too much sodium or fat or sugar and that there is enough protein. Once the menu is approved, ingredients are ordered.
To ensure the food is fresh, the district receives deliveries twice a week, Sells said.
The most popular lunch menu, according to Sells, is when the menu is “breakfast for lunch.” Any kind of breaded chicken is also a favorite among the students.
Breakfast favorites at the district are the breakfast pizza and long john doughnuts, Sells said. In fact, on average, 793 long johns are consumed by FDCSD students each Friday.
Sells said the food service staff’s jobs aren’t just to feed the kids every day, but to feed them foods the kids want to eat.
“What happens if a kid comes up and wants a pizza munchable and we’re out of pizza munchables, then it could ruin the rest of that kid’s day,” Sells said.. “He’s coming in at 11 o’clock, he doesn’t get what he wants, so the next four hours of the day could just be a complete mess for that child.”
For some of the students, Sells added, lunch might be the only meal they get to eat that day.
Under the USDA’s Seamless Summer Option, all preschool-through-12th grade students receive school breakfast and lunch for free during the 2021-2022 school year.