PINELLAS PARK - Seven-year-old Milani Ozuna looked longingly at her classmates' lunch boxes full of Doritos and chocolate cupcakes Wednesday afternoon as Kevin Concannon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, and a parade of school officials made their way through the lunchroom of Marjorie Rawlings Elementary School. The group was there to learn about the innovative ways Pinellas County Schools is offering healthier meals to students, even during the summer. If they'd asked Milani, though, she could have offered a few suggestions. "Is it supposed to be healthy food or gross food?" Milani, a rising second-grader at Rawlings, asked her friends as she ripped pieces off her prepackaged peanut butter and jelly sandwich. "I came on my first day, and they had this weird peanut butter sandwich that was frozen ... and even the milk was frozen - not like a milkshake, just like a slushy. Yuck."
In the upcoming school year, the school district's Food Services Department will make sure Milani and more of her classmates get hot lunches and dinners instead of the cold sandwiches, cheese sticks and packaged fruit slices they've been eating all summer. Pinellas is one of a select few school districts in five states Concannon is visiting to learn about ways increase the number of healthy meals served in schools across the nation. He also met with Manatee County school officials. Starting next month, four new food trucks that can hold about 500 hot and 400 cold meals will start serving Pinellas schools without kitchens, as well as summer- and after-school programs, where some students will receive free dinners. This summer, the cold trucks have been delivering more than 4,000 breakfasts, 7,500 lunches and 2,000 snacks to schools hosting Summer Bridge students, after-school programs - even community centers and churches - during the week. Last year, the school district served about 4,000 meals a day in the summer. Anyone younger than 18 can get a free meal from the school district during the summer, said field specialist Steve Pyland, who is in charge of the eight staff members that package the meals each day at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg. Every meal loaded on the truck gets eaten, he said. In August, free, hot dinners will be packed onto food trucks and delivered to two to five schools that host the YMCA's after-school programs, said Lynn Geist, the assistant director of the school district's Food Service Department. School officials hope to expand to all 45 eligible YMCA school programs by Christmas and include schools that have R'Club programs in January. Sites were determined by the number of students that qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches, Geist said. "A lot of parents in these areas work late, they're tired," Geist said. "They're not coming home and making dinner for their kids. They're trying to go to a fast food restaurant, and that gets expensive after a while. "Now, we'll do the cooking for them." In addition to the dinners, 59 Pinellas County schools with high volumes of students getting free- and reduced -price lunches will provide free meals to all students starting in the upcoming school year - not just those whose families qualify for the program. The changes come at no major expense to the school district, as the cost of all the meals is reimbursed by the USDA, and there are no anticipated additional costs, such as trash pickup or electric bills, said Food and Nutrition Supervisor Catherine Gerard. The district hopes the free lunches will help them serve at least 30 percent more students, as it saw a 28-percent increase this past school year when breakfast became free for all students, she said. Such efforts aren't worth it if kids don't eat the food, Concannon said. After new guidelines last school year required schools to serve healthier meals to students that met maximum calorie limits, Pinellas County also found ways to encourage kids to eat cafeteria food that Concannon said should be replicated across the nation as schools push to serve more students year-round. Some schools offer prizes for teams of students that try the most new fruits and vegetables and surveys that allow students to give feedback on what menu items they like. Across the county, students can eat as many free fruits and vegetables as they like; the produce often is purchased from local farms and can be as exotic as kiwis and pomegranates. The state Department of Agriculture picks up the cost. In middle schools, the 180 different foods provided by the USDA, such as canned yams and spinach, are used to make $1 smoothies that are "very popular," Gerard said. Students and cafeteria staff hold competitions to come up with new combinations, she said. For some students, though, such as 7-year-old Esperanza Herrera, a rising second-grader at Rawlings Elementary, learning to love vegetables will always be a challenge. "The only way lunch could be better is if they had the stuff that we want, like candy and big brownies," Esperanza said. [email protected] (727) 215-9851