Last month, Eastlake Middle School in Chula Vista, Calif., debuted a new outdoor barbecue grill concept, taking the pressure off the cafeteria and getting students psyched about a cookout at lunch. The middle school is one of 15 schools in the Sweetwater Union High School District with cookout-style lunch options away from the main cafeteria.
Hurried lunch periods and long lines have been a perennial source of concern throughout the district. According to Eric Span, director of nutrition services at the district, the layout of many schools in California contributes to the problem of an already-short half-hour lunch period.
“Our district, and I think California in general, tends to build schools spread out on acres and acres, and the cafeterias are always on the edges,” Span says. “When you only have 30 minutes, since kids tend to lollygag a little bit and communicate with their friends, by the time they get to the cafeteria and see a line, they get discouraged.”
Span, who is a chef with a restaurant background originally from Chicago, set out “to really change the way we serve food to students,” he says. “One thing I’ve seen a need for is to have multiple serving points across campus, but also different options: concepts kids will like.”
The 6-foot barbecue grills, which roll in and out of storage for use in dedicated outdoor grill areas, has been one of the most popular new options in 15 of 22 school sites so far, getting students excited for menu items not typically found at school, like ribs, but all fitting the National School Lunch Program nutritional guidelines.
On opening day for the new barbecue concept at Eastlake Middle School, the nutrition team served more than 400 plates of all-beef hamburgers, baby back ribs, tuna melts and hot dogs from Wellshire Farms, all-natural hot dogs from a Whole Foods label that have won acclaim in The New York Times as the best hot dogs in the country, an item Span was able to get a good deal on, he says.
In addition to helping with crowded cafeterias, what Span likes best about the outdoor cookout model is the versatility, since he does like to keep an eye out for purchasing opportunities as they come along.
“We try to be a little more nimble when we purchase and more open to trying different things,” he says, adding that he is planning more concepts, including taco and wok.