LUTZ — There are mornings when knowing what's for lunch at Odessa Elementary School would help Noele Kliewer immensely.
Her second-grade daughter doesn't always like what the school serves, Kliewer said, and on those days she prepares a lunch box instead. The school doesn't send home paper menus, and trying to navigate the district website can prove daunting even when you're not busy.
"If it was Monday morning at 7:30 and I'm trying to decide whether she'd like a lunch box or not, and I could just look at an app, that would be awesome," Kliewer said.
Wait no more. The Pasco County School District debuted an online cafeteria menu system, including smartphone application, a week ago to help parents plan. On it, parents can find out what's in the cafeteria weeks in advance.
"The beauty of the online menu is they can anticipate the days they are going to have to navigate through," said district dietitian Sarah Wood, who helps to create the school menus.
Wood and colleague Stephanie Spicknall spent weeks leading up to the system launch reviewing the calories, grams of fat and other specifics of every menu item to ensure that the online information is accurate.
Then they double-checked that the menus meet federal guidelines, lest the district lose funding for failure to comply.
"It's a full-time job to stay up to date," Wood said, noting that ingredients sometimes change and that different brands of the same product can vary in nutrients.
They will continue to update the information on the site throughout the year.
The smartphone app shows icons indicating whether each choice, be it a peach cup or barbecue pork, includes soy, dairy, wheat or egg. (Those items, along with nuts, fish and shellfish constitute about 90 percent of food allergies among children.) On the computer version, parents can select their children's allergies and watch as the program crosses out all items that might make their kids ill.
On some days, wheat or soy allergies leave children with few options, mostly among the side dishes. But food and nutrition director Julie Hedine said schools can make dietary accommodations for families that bring in proper medical documentation. The school could turn a sandwich into a salad for a student with certain needs, she said as an example.
The menus also show calories, carbohydrates and more.
Kliewer said such information could also help her plan dinners, to balance out whatever her daughter ate for lunch.
The district is using its new system in other ways to generate interest (and drum up sales) in the cafeterias. It has launched surveys and created a site where students can vote on menu choices.
For October, the schools are debuting three sandwiches — grilled chicken breast in sweet and sour sauce with pineapple; a chicken, apple and lettuce wrap; and a chili cheeseburger — with the one that gets the most votes returning to the menu at the end of the month.
As the computerized system takes hold, Hedine said, her department plans to further scale back the already small number of printed menus that schools put on their front counters. It will offer an emailed version to anyone who requests it.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek on Twitter. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.