School Café Program to Expand, a Bit

An effort to modernize cafeterias in Loudoun schools is gaining traction, but not as quickly as hoped.

The Loudoun County School Board has approved a contract worth more than $250,000 with School Nutrition Services to continue expanding the program with cafeteria updates at three county middle schools—Riverbend, Sterling and Stone Hill. However, administrators recommended continuing under a trail phase of the program until it starts to show more signs of picking up.

During a Finance & Facilities Committee meeting in late June, Becky Domokos-Bays, director of the school system’s School Nutrition Services division, told School Board members that the program is “not as successful as we’d hoped” in the early going and recommended continuing the existing limited scope while collecting data “before we move on to additional schools.”

Last summer, Sterling-based SNS introduced a “fast casual” approach known as Café + Teria as a pilot program at the Academies of Loudoun. The program includes an “Ignition” serving line where students can build a nutritious meal in a four-step process. The first step is selecting a grain, salad or wrap, followed by a protein of either antibiotic-free chicken, ground beef or Paneer cheese. The third choice is a topping of vegetables, cheese or sauces, and the final choice is dressing.

The project at the three middle schools will include new paint schemes based around individual school colors, new tables and chairs to “give it that commercial feel—kids are going to like that,” Domokos-Bays said. There will also be updates to kitchen areas and other elements to brighten the area and “give it a modern feel,” she said. “That’s why we call it a refresh.”

She also provided an update on vending machines installed at the schools that offer healthy options.

“They can pull out a salad, they could pull out a smoothie—something that would qualify as a full meal [under USDA guidelines],” Domokos-Bays said. The federal government gives grant money to the schools for the program, which is available to students who set up an account with school system. In addition to the popularity of smoothies and wraps, there’s evidence that some students are willing to spend extra for premium items, like a Starkist tuna pouch. Domokos-Bays said the division also seeks direct feedback from students and regularly monitors consumption to modify food items based on demand.

“We experiment. We ask the kids what they want,” she said. When School Board Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) asked about donuts, Domokos-Bays said the foods must be considered healthy to qualify for federal grant funding.

School board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said that one of her concerns is the “feeding frenzy for prime seats” that will be created for seating within the new and updated areas. “Kids are going to be knocking at the door for their turn.”

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