Food for thought: Area districts struggle to meet nutrition mandates and still offer lunches kids will eat

School lunches are not what they used to be.

Federal and state mandates governing what students eat have resulted in healthier, more well-rounded choices at lunch time, but for those in charge of putting together school menus, the mandates add one more facet to an already challenging balancing act.

Food service directors often have to juggle making food attractive to the kids and keeping it healthy, all while keeping the operation on budget.

It's a really big challenge, said Nicola Boehm, food service director for the Burnt Hills Ballston Lake School District.

One of the challenges, said Boehm, is not being repetitive with the food choices and focusing on foods students enjoy.

"They don't want to eat things like meatloaf and stews. They'd be horrified," said Boehm.

In a typical week in January, BH-BL high school students' hot lunch options included grilled cheese, hot turkey burritos, taco salad, and macaroni and cheese.

Typically, said Boehm, she tries to offer foods that are currently popular.

"Food is very fashionable," she said. "Kids want to eat things like chicken nuggets and chicken patties."

Boehm said problems sometimes arise when trying to balance what's popular with what's healthy.

"We have to have the five food groups every day," said Boehm, and students need to have three of the five, but, "We encourage them to take all five."

In addition to balancing health and selection, another challenge includes keeping the service operating in the black.

"We don't want to make a large profit by any means, but we want (the food service program) to be able to pay for itself, " said Boehm.

Basic high school and middle school meals at BH-BL cost $2, elementary meals are $1.50, and meals for adult staff, volunteers and visitors are $3.

Roland Laffert, the food service director for independent contractor Aramark, who supervises food services in the Scotia-Glenville School District, said it is a lot of work keeping up with the state's school meal initiatives.

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