Megan Schaper, State College Area School District food services director, has been in the profession for 24 years —20 of those in State College — and calls herself a school lunch geek.
“I find the program really fascinating. It has the potential to be a really great thing,” Schaper said.
Growing up in a household of 13, Schaper said she was not allowed to make her own lunch, allowing her to buy school lunches — something she wasn’t fond of.
Now as head of the program in State College, Schaper aims to give the students what they like in a school lunch, while keeping them healthy and following a strict set of federal guidelines.
How did you get into this career?
By accident. I’m a 1988 Penn State grad in hotel and restaurant management. I in no way thoughts schools were a possibility. I worked for McDonald’s out of college for their corporate offices doing managerial work and knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I did have my own fancy four-star restaurant in my mind, but was following my soon-to-be husband to Pittsburgh. T`hat’s where I found a job and happened to be flipping through a trade magazine and Aramark was looking to hire school supervisors in the Pittsburgh area and by coincidence was able to get into schools that way.
What are school lunch guidelines?
The federal lunch program is hugely regulated. School lunches have to provide the kids with a third of the calories they need during the school day. They have to provide a certain kind of meat or meat alternate, grain and, as of this year, half the grains we serve have to be whole grains. Next year, all the grains we serve have to be whole grains.
Is breakfast provided, too?
Yes. It’s a federally funded program.
Who provides the food?
We’re a self-operated program, so we’re all State College Area School District employees. We use locally-based produce in seasons, being careful about what to buy. Especially in the younger kids, they’re more susceptible to food-borne illness and you have to be careful. I go through Sysco food service and others and then spec local through them because they have people who do that. Farm-to-school is a hot topic and I appreciate and understand that, but there is a boundary. We buy locally in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland, but through a supplier that can do all the background checking.
What is the challenge of getting students to eat healthy or a balanced diet?
We write menus and present food to children trying to introduce healthy food to get them to eat them. We have featured fruits and veggies of the day and every day three or four vegetables are on the menu; there are five or six or eight fruits every day. So when the kids come through the line, if they are very picky eaters, they can find things they like, so that’s kind of our philosophy — putting lots of good things out that look good, taste good and have lots of choices.
What are your goals as a food service provider?
We look at students in two ways: Students are there to learn and as customers, and we have to balance that. I can put a really healthy menu together, but if every kid in the school says ‘yuck I’m not going to eat that,’ I’m in trouble because I can’t pay my fixed cost that day and the kids didn’t benefit because even though I put a healthy menu on the menu, nobody ate it, learned or liked it. So we’re really balancing and being realistic about what kids like. I have two goals. A short term goal to make sure when a child goes to his afternoon class that his stomach isn’t growling, that he has the energy level he needs and is able to participate in the educational process because he’s feeling good because of the good lunch he’s eating. Then the longer-term goal of helping them to be healthy.
How many lunches are served daily in the district?
About 4,000. We run about 70 percent at middle and elementary schools. In the high school it’s only about 45 percent. However a huge number of our high schoolers don’t have a scheduled lunch period, which is something I’m working on and talking to administration about. We are trying to have kids be healthier and when you don’t have a scheduled lunch period, you end up binge eating or grabbing low nutrient foods to eat.
What does it cost students?
$2.35 in the elementary level — that includes a whole meal of an entree, fruits, vegetables, milk and a dessert. That’s an increase of a dime from last year. $2.65 in the middle school. $2.90 in the high school. Half of it is food cost; the rest goes toward labor and equipment, etc.
How is the lunch program funded?
I don’t get money from the school board, the state or federal government or the parents until the kids come in and decide to buy their lunch. So if a child doesn’t look at the menu and says ‘Wow, I like chicken nuggets, I’m going to buy lunch today,’ then we have nothing. If only 20 percent of kids come in to buy lunch, I have money, but I don’t have enough money to pay for my staff. Food cost goes up or down depending on how many kids you have buy a lunch. And to a point, labor cost is fixed. This includes labor, material, and machines. And we have to generate a lot of volume in order to just break even.
How much money does the school food services department make annually?
Our budget is $3.5 million. We break even. This year, we made $7,000, last year we lost $17,000. We’re just covering our costs. We doubled the amount of fruits and veggie service in the high school level and went up significantly in the elementary level, so all that adds cost. I need 70 percent of all students to buy lunch in order to break even.
How about vending machines?
They are so regulated. The last authorization was in 2010. The previous reauthorization before that was in 2006. In 2006, if your school had a federally funded meal program, I had to write a local board approved wellness policy. In elementary schools, we don’t sell anything that’s not part of the school lunch. In the middle school and beyond, we do, but that they have to be snacks less than 200 calories as part of local wellness policy. Two years ago, we took anything described as candy out of the vending machines. So we don’t have candy bars at all. And middle school students are only restricted to buying one. At the high school level, standards are a little looser, but parents can request the school monitor their child.
How were sales after that?
Our sales dropped. A la carte came in and it generated a lot of cost to help make ends meet. In 2006, we took soda machines out and our revenue dropped by $120,000. So on one-hand that’s $120,000 worth of soda students aren’t drinking, but that was kind of the year when we just barely kept our nose above water.
What do you want the public to know about the school lunch program?
I want parents to know when they see chicken nuggets and pizza and tacos that we put those things on because we know kids like them and eat them. I want your child to pay attention throughout the day because they ate their meal and enjoyed it, too. While all those have fast food connotations, we’re buying items specified to be very healthy.
What would you like to see the lunch program become?
You can bring a child to the lunch line, but if they think they don’t like something then they’re not going to eat them. I’d love to see a lunch program where teachers sit down and eat with 10 or 15 kids and encourage them to taste something they haven’t had before.
Is this something that can start at home?
Yes that’s the other piece. I go to a lot of PTO meetings and the No. 1 comment I consistently hear is that their child is still hungry and the lunches aren’t big enough, but I point out that we’re serving them double the fruits and veggies that they got last year and they’re bigger, and the response I get back is that my kid doesn’t like fruits and veggies. I’m not condemning them, I know what picky eaters are like, but we don’t give up on them. I think we have to keep introducing and keep trying.
What’s the outlook next year?
Implementing smart snacks in school. This year we’ll be selling Panera bagels at the high school, but next year won’t be able to sell them because it won’t meet the Smart Snacks in Schools rule by the USDA. A smart snack is less than 200 calories; it’s less that 230 mg of sodium. It’s 50 percent whole grain, so some very reasonable snacks like whole grain peanut butter crackers will not meet the standard. Things that people say is a reasonable snack we might not be able to sell next year. So now are we keeping our heads above water? Yes, but I’m very very worried about that next year.