The Story of a... Public School Nutritionist

Lora Gilbert, 54, Orange County Public Schools’ director of food and nutrition services, caters to a lot of customers with demanding tastes.



Photo By Mark Losh Photography

The school system serves about 136,000 meals per day, and students have a great deal of influence on their cafeterias’ lunch menus. Students participate in food-focus groups and offer recipes and ideas for food items.
 
“When we get an idea for a menu item we try and develop it into a plate,’’ Gilbert says. “Then we bring it back to that person, whether it is a student, parent or food service manager, and ask, ‘Is this what you meant?’ We take their comments and test the dish in five or six schools. That’s where we have to have a 70 percent acceptance rate.”

If the item makes the grade, it’s sent out to vendors for pricing and evaluated for nutrition. Next stop: students’ plates.

Carbonated beverages and fried foods are not served. That means no French fries. “We went back to the high schools, asking what they’d like in place of the fries, and they said ‘salads’!”

“Yes, we serve a lot of pizza, but it’s part skim, low-fat mozzarella and low-fat pepperoni.” The county also pays 0.2 percent more per biscuit just to get ones that don’t contain transfats.

Is your child brown-bagging? “Because we’ll save you with your grocery bill.’’ High school and middle school students can get lunch for $2.50. Elementary students pay only $1.86.

The district sponsors Iron Chef competitions at schools, based on the popular Food Network show. “Kids are put on teams and they have to make a quick, healthy meal in 20 minutes.” The popularity of the contests has led schools to offer a Build-Your-Own-Burrito Day.

“We sent water pouches out for an FCAT snack in 2007. Once the pouches were punched with straws, they became water cannons.’’ That snack idea was immediately scrapped.

After a petition from some students requesting more vegetarian offerings, Gilbert’s department added veggie burgers, pasta with marinara sauce and veggie wraps, among other items. Peta2, a youth animal rights group, has ranked Orange in the top five districts in the country when it comes to providing vegetarian options.
 
Gilbert visited an elementary school the first day that corn on the cob was served there. “As I began explaining that corn came from a plant in the ground, one little girl immediately spit hers out, saying, ’I’m not eating something that came out of the dirt!’ ”

Sushi in the lunch room? “California rolls are very popular’’ with elementary school students.

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