Barbara Albi and her food service staff in the Depew school district generally do their jobs without accolades.
May 5 was different.
Students across the district celebrated School Lunch Hero Day by drawing thank-you notes, writing poems and giving gift cards.
Similar celebrations – inspired by the popular “Lunch Lady” kid’s novels by Jarrett J. Krosoczka – took place in hundreds of cafeterias across the U.S.
“What I love about this day the most – besides the fact that they are being recognized – is that the kids are so involved,” said Albi, district food service director, who left a career in the senior living field two decades ago to help feed schoolchildren.
Albi and her 22 employees work in a district that includes a high school, middle school and Cayuga Heights Elementary School. They dished out 111,723 breakfasts and 149,745 lunches last school year. About half of students in the district received free or reduced-price meals.
"We’re not just throwing together sandwiches," Albi said. "We do meals for the kids. We have a hard job because we have to make sure we’re giving the right portions. We need to standardize recipes. A lot of thought gets put into it. The paperwork is phenomenal now. We have calorie levels we have to meet, fat levels we have to meet. Things have to be whole grain breaded. French fries are flash frozen, not coated."
Fries disappeared from the menu for a while in the early 2000s, after governmental regulations banned fryers for use in school cafeterias – for health reasons. Regulations continued to tighten during the Obama administration as first lady Michelle Obama became more involved in promoting healthier eating, particularly for children, because of alarming obesity rates and hikes in chronic conditions including Type 2 diabetes.
"Through the years, the food started to get healthier, better," Albi said, and food manufacturers began to make a growing amount of popular cafeteria fare with less fat, sodium, sugar and other ingredients that when overused contribute to poor health.
Albi serves on the Erie County and New York State school nutrition associations, and has helped shape school food legislation. She said the associations supported efforts to slow down regulations that would have further lowered the overall amount of sodium in school breakfasts and lunches starting July 1 – changes the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week would not go into effect, at least for now. The federal agency also looks to give all states the ability to grant waivers in some districts where regulations cause a precipitous drop in kids choosing to take food made in school cafeterias.
Under existing regulations, complete breakfasts for those in grades K-5 must have sodium levels under 540 mg; lunches, 1,230 mg. The amounts are slightly in higher upper grades. The regulations that have been halted would have taken the numbers to 485 mg and 935, respectively.
“We can’t meet that target. I’m just being honest,” Albi said.
Both thresholds are considered low-sodium meals, she said. She said food service leaders who lobbied for the change used the following meal to make the point: Fruit, green beans, a turkey sandwich and skim milk came to 1,100 mg of sodium for lunch.
Regulations already in place also require 1 percent milk and skim milk or chocolate skim milk.
State waivers – which New York has used for years –give district food service directors a bit more latitude to assure kids eat lunch and breakfast, something particularly important for families in need.
Depew got a waiver to return to plain bagels when whole grain didn't sell, Albi said, and the district gradually is trying to reintroduce whole grain bagels. "For some districts, it’s the pasta," she said. "Our kids will accept the brown pasta, so I don’t have a problem with it. Across the country, there was a problem with the tortilla shells. If the kids don’t eat it, what good does it do for them?
“If we go too far," Albi said, "we might as well give them cardboard because they’re not going to eat it.”
To be sure, however, progress has come with existing changes.
"I wouldn’t have said this a few years back but my most popular meal is breakfast for lunch," Albi said. "We’ll do whole grain pancakes, low-sodium pork sausage, a baked hash brown patty, regular syrup and vegetables. Usually it’s something brightly colored like carrots or mixed vegetables. They also get a choice of fresh fruit or canned fruit. When new things become available, we try them."
Albi also has introduced, slowly, some of the veggies she once served to seniors in several of the region's nursing homes.
"I got some pushback," she said, "but now they’re in high school and they ask for them: Brussels sprouts, beets, cauliflower. When you’re standing out there and they have Brussels sprouts on and the kids are excited, you’re like “Yea!”
Albi said many on her staff started in school food service to help support their families when their children were young. Some have stayed – for as long as 28 years.
“Working in schools is very heartwarming," she said. "Kids say little things that make you laugh. Plus you’re feeding these little souls. What wouldn’t you like about making sure they’re nourished? We know how important it is.”
Cinco de Mayo in the Cayuga Heights cafeteria – with its Mexican-themed lunch items, tamale-shaped party lights, and drawings, kind words and even a few hugs – made for a great way to spend School Lunch Hero Day.
“It’s important that the background people are being recognized," Albi said. "They do appreciate it.”
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottScanlon