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Students give lunch lessons

When Pleasant Grove Elementary School gets its report card from parents each year, the only "subject" in which it doesn't earn A's or B's is lunch. If lunch were an academic subject, it would have received a "C" last year from the parents.

Lunch supervisors countywide have been trying out new ways to get their customers _ the students _ involved in deciding what goes on their plates.

The tactic not only is making students and parents feel better about the lunch selections but also is helping to cut costs.

Those efforts have been so effective that school finance officials predict that the food service program will break even for the school year just passed _ the first time in recent memory that the program didn't lose money.

Other changes this year have helped.

Food now is delivered directly to the schools rather than to a central distribution point. In addition, the district is transferring employees to where they're needed rather than hiring more.

An even larger boost to the lunchroom cash registers has been the breakfast program, which made its debut this year.

By the end of April, 178,517 breakfasts had been served to the county's elementary school pupils.

But officials agree that getting the students more involved is a big reason for the financial turnaround.

About two weeks ago, the Pleasant Grove student council members loaned their taste buds to the effort by rating pizza prospects.

"I had gotten a lot of complaints about the pizza we'd been using," said Shirley Poe, district food service supervisor. "It was not what we'd been getting and the kids didn't like it."

A new vendor asked to be included on the list that the School Board considers. The vendor sent some sample pizzas.

Poe turned to the discerning students at Citrus High School and Pleasant Grove Elementary.

"We've never done (taste testing) with the elementary kids before. We've done it at the high school and middle school level," Poe said.

Caroline Smith, lunchroom manager at the elementary school, said, "The kids still liked (the old pizza). But they liked the new pizza better."

She said pizza may not have been the best item to test for the first time.

"That's the thing about pizza. Our participation goes up 100 kids on pizza day. They'd eat pizza every day whatever it tasted like."

Mrs. Smith said she hopes school officials continue to use elementary school food tasters in the future.

"The kids will give you the most honest answer," she said.

Pleasant Grove principal Mark Brunner said he was pleased with the results of the taste test, which he said he sees as a way to make students feel better about their school.

Poe said taste testing, which generally happens several times a year, will include elementary students in the future.

The school system has found other benefits in getting younger students involved in choices affecting them.

This past school year was the first time that elementary school pupils could choose lunchtime entrees and side orders. High school and middle-school students always have been given choices.

Such freedom of choice has kept lots of beans and franks and succotash out of elementary school garbage cans.

"It's the least amount of waste I think I've ever seen," said Mrs. Smith.

"If the kids don't really like it, they don't have to take it. Before, they had to put it on their plate whether they liked it or not."

Food service supervisors say that the students are still getting all of the required items in their lunch _ they just have choices now.

That also makes the students more likely to eat a balanced lunch, they say.

The reduced waste has been a big reason that the food service department seems to be balancing its budget this year, school officials said.

For many years, the School Board has had to subsidize the lunch program.

About $300,000 went from general funds into food service funds each year. The subsidy may not be needed this year, but business services director Ron Toft said last week that the budget proposal is not yet complete.

In fact, school finance officers and administrators last week said they should recommend that lunch and breakfast prices be increased next year.

"We're studying what other districts are doing and particularly what we need to consider in order to continue breaking even," Toft said.