Boise School District Dishes Up New Meals, Good Feelings 

When the Boise Independent School District begins a new school year on Monday, Aug. 20, food and nutrition workers citywide will begin serving meals to thousands of students. While a dizzying number of breakfasts, lunches and dinners are plated up to hungry kids, it's easy to overlook just how much planning goes into every tray of food and how much passion the workers behind those trays have for feeding students.

"One of our team used to say, 'Food doesn't fall from the sky,'" said Peggy Bodnar, the Food & Nutrition Services supervisor for the district. "From the planning, to the ordering, to the software program, it's all very complex."

Bodnar is responsible for serving 22,000 meals every day at 47 locations across the Boise School District, and she has to ensure that the operation is financially self-sufficient, generating almost all of its revenue from meals that cost $2.50-$3 each. It's a logistical puzzle that makes managing a restaurant look like child's play. Food & Nutrition staff have been planning this year's menus since last July.

click to enlarge BOISE INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT
  • Boise Independent School District

For the 2018-19 school year, students get to choose from a mix of cafeteria classics and trendy new additions. Pizza, burgers and breaded chicken sandwiches, the most popular meals in the district, will make their triumphant returns. Newer items like paninis, grab-and-go protein boxes and "walking tacos"—bags of Doritos to which students can add taco toppings—will have to earn students' approval.

Perhaps this year's most exciting development: Every high school in the district will have a salad bar, which will allow students to load up on fresh fruits and vegetables, and choose how much food they'd like.

The district innovates in order to keep up with food trends, Bodnar said. Last year it piloted a line of gourmet burgers, getting as wild as a peanut butter-and-bacon burger, to entice students. Before that, it rolled out a line of smoothies.

Every meal produced by the district must meet stringent nutrition requirements. Even the Pizza Hut pizza it serves is made with whole wheat crust, light mozzarella and lean turkey pepperoni.

Bodnar said that creating healthy meals that students approve of is "a balancing act."

"We will always focus on nutritious meals, but if students don't participate with us, the preparation of nutritious meals doesn't mean anything," she said. "And if they participate and throw food in the trash, we only have healthy trash cans."

click to enlarge BOISE INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT
  • Boise Independent School District

Most of the more than 240 Food & Nutrition Services staff members are women, and many of them started the job because their children were of school-age. Though the work is difficult, physical and fast-paced, employees can get off work when their students leave school, and enjoy the same holidays and vacations.

Kerry Nelson started working at Garfield Elementary when her kids were in kindergarten and second grade. They're now 28 and 30 years old, respectively, and she has spent the past 19 years as the food services manager at Timberline High School. Like many in this line of work, she said the students keep her coming back.

"I make it a habit to get to know the kids by name specifically, and it's a gift for me to be able to remember them when they move on in the world," said Nelson. "I've been on an airplane in Lackland, Texas, and heard some people talking behind me and they were Timberline graduates." She even remembered riding an elevator in Las Vegas with one of her past students and asking, "'What are you doing here?'" to which he replied, "'What are you doing here?'"

Jo Anne Grywczynski has been the food service manager at Washington Elementary for 10 years, cooking for an average of 115 students each day.

"I will be honest, I never thought it would be this lifetime career, but I just love it," she said. "The hours are wonderful, and if you're an at-home mom it's a great way to just get out, just keep yourself kind of busy."

The bonds with students extend beyond the cafeteria, too. Grywczynski still attends the school plays of a ninth-grader whom she'd served lunch since the second grade. "I just kind of gravitated to her and her family, and in the process we've become really super close," she said.

The people working in school cafeterias don't always get the recognition they deserve, but Bodnar is inspired by the positive influence they have on students. It has changed her understanding of her work.

"I didn't like the term 'lunch lady' when I first started, however so many of the food service staff love it," she said. "They love the fact that they can be that lunch lady that kids grow up and don't forget."

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