Englewood student pushes Salem-Keizer for healthier, tastier school lunch

Aliza Stapleton scraped her half-eaten nachos into a lunchroom trash can, then walked back to her classroom’s table at Englewood Elementary School, waiting to be dismissed.

The fourth grader said it’s not unusual for her to not finish her lunch.

Recently, she decided to do something about it.

Stapleton took her case to the Salem-Keizer budget committee in early May, speaking with poise as she stood alone at a podium in front of dozens of adults. She referenced the month’s school lunch menu, which she’d distributed to members ahead of time.

“At school we focus a lot on learning to read, write and do math, but I think learning about our health is more important,” she told the committee. “We all know that eating fast food is not very healthy for our bodies, but for some reason we see lots of fast food options in our school cafeterias.”

Stapleton urged district leaders to reconsider meal options, saying that the food offered is unhealthy and often doesn’t taste good.

Her three-minute address prompted committee members to question district leaders about nutrition quality and has school board directors considering a work session on school food later this year.

“I gotta agree with her, tacos and green beans probably aren’t the best thing to provide together,” board member Jim Green said. “When you have a student coming in talking about food, I do want to pay attention to that. It’s a big deal.”

“As a district it would be awesome if we could kind of lead the way on keeping our kids healthy,” said board member Jesse Lippold.

The district contracts with Sodexo for food service, paying the company $3.20 per breakfast or lunch served, according to the most recent contract. Federal money covers most of those costs.

In elementary school, students can select a “lunch special,” which changes every day, or opt for a sandwich or staple entree that is served on the same day each week.

Stapleton said she usually chooses the regular Monday nachos with beef and queso instead of the lunch special, which this week was cheesy breadsticks and marinara sauce.

Federal and state law requires Sodexo to adhere to nutrition guidelines, which limit the amount of sodium, saturated and trans fats that can be served, and to serve fruit and vegetables.

The company involves a dietician and executive chef in those decisions, school Superintendent Christy Perry told the committee.

Though some items may appear more like fast food, they’re often made with whole grains or otherwise modified to be healthier, she said.

The district’s May elementary school menu has lunch specials including corn dogs, chicken nuggets with seasoned potatoes and creamy mac and cheese with rolls.

Weekly repeating items include pizza on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and cheesy breadsticks with dipping sauce on Fridays. Stapleton’s mother, Virginia, said breadsticks are “just another form of pizza.”

A reporter ate with Stapleton and her classmates during a recent Monday lunch in the Englewood cafeteria.

Fruits and vegetables were available, but students had to choose to add them to their tray after receiving an entree. Options included a salad mix of spinach leaves and lettuce, whole baby carrots, green beans, canned fruit and small granny smith apples.

Milk and chocolate milk also were available.

Stapleton joined many classmates in grabbing an apple, but said they might be “better for pie” because of the small size. She likes whole fruit, she said, but finds it’s often difficult to eat it in the 20 minutes allotted for lunch, especially on days she has orchestra before and ends up near the end of the food line.

She’s not alone in thinking the food should be better. Her classmates echoed her concerns, with one boy saying they’d been served pizza nearly every day last week.

Several, when asked what they thought of the lunch offerings, simply gave thumbs down. One spent much of the lunch period holding up single green beans and noting how much they looked like human limbs.

Fruit and vegetable options in the Englewood Elementary lunchroom are self-serve. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Stapleton said she stopped eating school lunches during third grade, opting to bring one from home, but after talking with her mother, the pair decided the most effective way for her to make change is to continue eating what’s offered at school while speaking out about how it could be better.

Virginia Stapleton, who sits on the budget committee, said she thinks it’s important kids are exposed to fresh fruits and vegetables, not just canned items.

Her daughter’s school has enough low-income students that breakfast and lunch are offered for free to everyone, which means many kids get the majority of their food for the day at school.

“We’re responsible for how they see food,” she said.

She said the district often talks about needing to improve attendance, curb disruptive behavior and have more school nurses, and she thinks improvements in food could help with all those problems.

In response to Stapleton’s concerns, board members said they want to hold a work session and learn more about the food planning process.

Stapleton said she feels somewhat successful because the board listened to her, but she’s still hoping to see improvements.

“I would really like to replace the pizza on Tuesdays and Thursdays with healthier food,” she said.

Salem-Keizer’s monthly lunch menu for elementary school students, May 2019.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.