Try getting a nutritious meal in a restaurant for $2. Or a filling breakfast for $1.25.
Then mix in some of the most finicky eaters in the world: elementary, middle and high school students.
That's a fair description of the job that Lori Drenth faces as the Hernando County School District's director of food and nutrition. Drenth must provide healthy meals on a budget — and craft menus that thousands of kids will actually eat. (The prices listed above are for the secondary schools. Elementary school students pay less.)
Each year brings ideas toward improving what is served in the school cafeterias.
"We have a couple of new things going on," Drenth said about this school year. Another dietitian is on staff. There are three. "So we have lots of nutrition knowledge floating around here in food services," she said.
Drenth also helps parents with their concerns. The food service department is working on making nutritional information about school meals available to parents.
"We're working with schoolmenu.com," she said. The Hernando County School District nutrition information is not up and running yet, she said, but it is in the works. "It's on our menu," Drenth quipped.
Drenth and her department continue to work toward compliance with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which was established by the American Heart Association and former President Bill Clinton in 2005 to help fight childhood obesity. The goals have been met in elementary schools and include guidelines for fat and sugar content in foods.
"It's a little bit harder in middle and high school, but we're going to work toward it." Drenth said. "We're growing up a generation in elementary school that knows healthy products." At the elementary level, breads are now whole grain, for instance.
A number of vegetarian meals are available in all schools.
"We have a daily option," Drenth said. Examples in the elementary schools include cheese sticks with or without dipping sauce, tossed vegetable salad and ravioli.
Middle and high schools offer tomato and cheese hoagies, Caesar salad and Italian lasagna for vegetarians. There are also several salad choices that include meat and lots of vegetables, including chef salad, Cobb salad, chicken Caesar salad and classic salad with breaded chicken or egg.
Traditional meals of baked chicken and turkey and gravy are still available. New this year are regular or spicy chicken sliders.
In an effort to cut down on sugar in the elementary schools, Drenth has been piloting a no-chocolate-milk policy at Chocachatti Elementary School for the past couple of years.
Some students missed the sweeter option at first, but Drenth said milk consumption went back up as students got used to the change. Eventually she hopes to expand that policy to other schools.
With increased parent information and the use of healthier products, food service continues to move toward better choices in the schools. "We're really moving in some different directions," Drenth said, "and letting the community know what's going on."