Masuk lunch program nourishes young minds

At lunchtime, you could easily mistake the busy food lines at Masuk High School’s student cafeteria for a food court at a shopping mall or a theme-park eatery. With enticing aromas and plenty of variety, this is not the kind of food many experienced in the high schools of the past.

The Masuk cafeteria has undergone a quiet makeover in the past two years. The Board of Education and school administrators decided to opt out of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) at the high school level. Monroe students in lower grades (K-8) continue to take part in a school lunch program designed in accordance with the NSLP.

At the high school, the result has been a “home run” for many concerned.

Because Masuk students like what’s on the menu, parents can rest easy knowing they will get a healthy mid-day meal. Likewise, teachers, administrators and coaches see better performance in the classroom and on the sports fields. And staff at Monroe public schools headquarters are confident in the lunch program’s good value.

“The Masuk cafeteria’s biggest draw is the variety,” said Assistant Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza. “The sandwich line is always popular, and the pizza, saute station and grilled items are quite popular as well. It’s very akin to the food court at a mall.”

A ‘thumbs up’ from students

Kobza’s observations were seconded by a group of students who chatted with The Monroe Courier during a recent lunch break.

“There’s so much variety now,” said Masuk junior Hanna Fink. “When we had the so-called healthy menu, nobody ate in the cafeteria. We still have plenty of salads and fruit bowls now …  but there’s no one telling you at checkout that you need to put an apple on your tray.”

Classmate Matt Mitola nodded in assent. He pointed out that the most popular cafeteria item — chicken strips and fries — is also his personal favorite.

“To me, it provides the most bang for your buck,” Mitola said.

The current menu replaced one developed by former First Lady Michelle Obama. It became widely derided as bland and unappetizing.

“It was more expensive than it is now, and it didn’t taste as good,” said Fink.

Gabrielle DiBlasi, the school district’s director of finance and management services, described the school lunch program at Masuk as a balancing act between healthy fare and food that tastes good. It is possible to accomplish both aims, she noted.

As an example of the latter, DiBlasi went to the Masuk kitchen and brought back a paper dish of french fries to sample. They looked like ordinary fries, and they tasted pretty much the same as well — but these “fries” are baked rather than deep-fried in the fashion of fast-food fare. This makes them a healthier complement to popular dishes such as chicken strip.

“We always want to provide food that’s healthy, and we are always bound by certain state guidelines on what we can offer,” DiBlasi said.

Coffee, Gatorade and carbonated soda are not allowed, she pointed out. Plenty of students still do arrive each morning with their own steaming mugs of Dunkin Donuts coffee, but the school cannot sell it.

Improving statistics

More than a decade ago, half of all Masuk students purchased lunch in the cafeteria. Participation dipped into the mid-30% range during the height of the Obama-era “healthy eating” regulations. Since the school district revamped the fare at the high school level, participation has rebounded and now stands just lower than 50%.

“We do try to offer ethnic foods as well, such as Chinese and Mexican fare,” DiBlasi said.

A current cafeteria favorite is sushi — albeit, made with avocado or cucumber as a substitute for raw fish.

The cafe also pays close attention to food trends. Especially popular with high-schoolers are smoothies — a thick, smooth drink made from fresh fruit pureed with milk or yogurt. School athletes in particular also like to grab fresh fruit cups before they head out onto the field for practice.

“This is a great alternative to a beverage or a packaged snack,” said DiBlasi. “They know that if they are going to a two-hour practice session, they need something healthy to fuel their body.”

To keep on top of student sentiment, school administrators and Sodexho management meet monthly with student representatives. This provides insight on what items are most popular with students, which ones need fine tuning and, within reason, where items can be added.

Masuk is also home to the middle-school-level STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program. By state mandate, they must be served a menu that conforms to the guidelines of the National School Lunch Program. Lunchtime begins 20 minutes later for STEM students, well after the last Masuk students have been served.


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