The Dallas Independent School District (ISD) is always looking for new ways to improve its meal programs. Last May, it replaced polystyrene trays with compostable plates, eliminating 225 million pieces of Styrofoam waste a year and giving students a more home-like dining experience of eating on plates.
When the school year begins this month, elementary, middle and high school students will have a new grab-and-go Smart Box option for lunch when they queue up in the main cafeteria line.
The prepared boxes feature simple, healthy meals centered on whole grains, protein, fruit and vegetables. High schoolers can choose between Trim Turkey Sandwich Kit, Healthy Ham Sandwich Kit, Bistro Salad Sampler, Protein Power Pack, and All Wrapped Up: Chicken Ranch or Chicken Cesar.
Elementary and middle school students have the choice of Happy Ham, Totally Turkey, Perfect PB&J, Pizza Pizzazz, Veggie Dippers, and Fruit and Yogurt Snackers.
“We had a population of students that was not participating in our lunch program. When we visited the cafeteria, we noticed these students would bring their own lunchboxes from home,” explains Dora Rivas, executive director, Dallas ISD food and child nutrition services.
“We thought the Smart Boxes could be a great alternative for parents, an attractive lunchbox already prepared with nutritious options. We’re hoping that the Smart Boxes draw participation from the kids that just prefer a convenient and simple lunch like Lunchables.”
Dallas ISD, where 91 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced school meals, participates in the USDA's Community Eligibility Program, in which every student is given a free breakfast and lunch regardless of their payment status.
“We’ve been making fresh sandwiches from scratch for years and they have always been very popular,” says Holly Frias, Dallas ISD’s menu specialist, “but the students usually just want to get the sandwich and go without waiting to choose their fruit and vegetable that are necessary to qualify the lunch as reimbursable. The Smart Boxes better serve the students while meeting the federal standards.”
If students would like a Smart Box meal in addition to another entrée, they are also available for purchase á la carte.
Rivas and her team are influenced by The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, an initiative from the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition that focuses on research-based lunchrooms that guide smarter choices and promote healthy eating.
“The Smarter Lunchrooms marketing principles show that young students respond to round labels and fun, catchy names so we designed our Smart Boxes for elementary and middle school students accordingly,” Frias says. “Meanwhile high schoolers are more responsive to information so we’ve named the Smart Boxes to directly reflect the meal’s benefit such as Protein Power Pack or Trim Turkey.”
The high school Smart Boxes also include labels listing calorie count, all ingredients and any of the big eight allergens that are included. The packages are environmentally friendly as well: the elementary and middle school boxes are made from 100 percent plant-based products and the high school ones are made of recycled water bottles.
And with a school district this size, those sustainable choices are bound to make a real impact. Dallas ISD includes about 220 school sites and serves 35 million meals a year, that’s 125,000 lunches a day.
The sheer size of the operation is challenging enough, but Rivas says the biggest challenge always comes back to “making the meals consistently attractive and encouraging the children to eat everything that they take.”
“We’re always looking to increase participation,” Rivas says, “so we try to come up with new concepts like Smart Boxes that will be appealing to the students, meet the federal requirements and taste good.”
The district’s innovation doesn’t stop with Smart Boxes. This year, Dallas ISD is also organizing Farm Fresh Fridays, in which locally grown fruits and vegetables are on the menu and local farmers appear on collectible trading cards. Coming this September: juicy Texas watermelon.