TAMPA — Some days, 16-year-old Vanessa Lopez wishes she brought her lunch to school because she doesn’t like the options in the cafeteria.
Now, all it takes the Alonso High School sophomore is a couple of taps on her smartphone screen to see a full menu for each day, including pictures, a description, and the breakdown of calories, carbohydrates, fat, fiber, protein and sodium.
This semester, the student nutrition services department with the Hillsborough County school district launched a free application for smartphones called “School Lunch.” It is available in the Apple App Store for iPhones and in the Google Play store for Android phones.
The app is powered by a company called Nutrislice at no cost to the district, said Ginain Grayes, marketing specialist with nutrition services. It is funded by the Florida Department of Agriculture, she said.
In loading all its breakfast and lunch menus onto the app, Hillsborough joins other districts across Florida, including Pasco and Pinellas, as well as districts in 13 other states.
The app comes as another step in the nationwide push to offer more healthful school meals. Last school year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program tightened its breakfast and lunch standards, reducing calories and fat and adding whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Next school year, students will see more healthful versions of foods in a la carte lines, such as chicken tenders. The program reimburses schools for meals they serve. Some districts across the country are opting out of the national program because students are not eating the more healthful meals.
Grayes said Hillsborough is staying with it.
“We haven’t seen the pushback other districts have,” she said. “We’ve been enforcing these new regulations for years. We’ve gotten really positive feedback from parents and students.”
Alice Whited, Alonso’s student nutrition manager, said she has trained her 18 cafeteria employees on how the new app works.
“It’s very user friendly,” Whited said. “This allows parents to make more informed choices and balance their budget, too.”
Now, the goal is to get the word out to students. Information about the app is posted on the district’s student nutrition services website and soon, students will see app information posted on television screens at school.
Whited said the app is particularly helpful for students who must closely monitor their health. A student allergic to soy can check a meal’s ingredients. Athletes can add food with carbohydrates and protein to their diet.
“We have a number of students who have health issues,” Whited said. “Whether it is a food allergy or diabetes, this app helps students. If a student chooses an all-beef hot dog, they know it contains dairy, meat, wheat and soy.” As the bell rang for the first of three lunch periods on Friday, the Alonso cafeteria quickly filled with smartphone-toting students. Although they are not allowed to use their cellphones during class time, they may use them at lunch.
Some of the school’s 2,500-plus tech-savvy students, like Lopez, have started using the app.
Because she consulted the app before lunch, Lopez already knew she would want to bypass the enchiladas and corn dogs offered that day. She selected a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, instead.
“It tells you the calories and everything,” she said. “It’s very good because if you don’t like what’s at school, you can bring your own lunch.”
Sophomore Johnathan Mitchell, 15, said the app provides a convenient and quick way to see his choices before he gets to the cafeteria.
“I like it,” he said. “I don’t want to be surprised.”
Yudith Lazado, who has a 13-year-old daughter in the seventh grade at Davidsen Middle School, said the app makes it simple for her and her daughter to plan meals. Lazado is a student nutrition assistant in Alonso’s cafeteria. “I tell the students it’s easy,” she said. “It’s good for parents.”
Pinellas County schools piloted the app at four sites last school year, said Catherine Gerard, food and nutrition supervisor.
“Something like a paper menu is getting a bit outdated,” Gerard said. “The kids and even parents are very tech-savvy. We are really promoting it districtwide this year.”
In Pasco County, the school district will launch the app in schools next week, said Stephanie Spicknall, program manager of nutrition and wellness.
“We are in the process of updating our database for the allergens and descriptions and making sure everything is perfect,” Spicknall said.
In addition to the app, Hillsborough students and parents will see some other changes this year.
Next month, the district will open salad bars in 25 elementary schools, Grayes said. And there soon will be build-your-own-sandwich lines in high schools, which already have salad bars.
Students also will see new color-coded cafeteria trays that will indicate where they can place items from the fruit, vegetable, dairy, grain and protein groups to build a more healthful lunch.
Visit the Hillsborough student nutrition services website at http://www.sdhc.k12.fl.us/sns/.