'Kids drive the menu' at Jamestown schools

Shelley Mack, licensed registered dietitian and food service director for the Jamestown Public School District, shows the food line choices Thursday, Oct. 31, at Jamestown High School. Mack says students have six entrees to choose from daily at JHS. She says they listen to what students want to eat and try to provide a variety of healthy choices for them. Kathy Steiner / The Sun

Popular foods - JHS and JMS

Chicken alfredo pasta


Taco in a bag



Mini corn dogs


Chicken products (popcorn chicken, nuggets, strips)

Also like:

Turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes

Meatballs, gravy, mashed potatoes

Hotdogs, hamburgers



Popular foods - elementary grades

Finger foods (chicken sticks, nuggets)

Mini corn dogs


Also like:

Turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes

Meatballs, gravy, mashed potatoes


Hotdogs, hamburgers


For students in Jamestown Public Schools, when it’s time to eat, there’s no question the food will be ready for them if they’re eating food prepared by JPS. But the process to get the food to the students begins much earlier than that.

Shelley Mack, a licensed registered dietician and food service director for the Jamestown Public School District, said menu planning begins a year before students will see the food on their plate.

“There’s a lot that goes into putting that together,” she said.

And menu planning is all about the students.

“Kids drive the menu and they let you know, which is great. They’re our customers,” Mack said.

Whether it’s meeting annually with student council members, taking surveys, having taste testings or simple student chatter, Mack says food service staff want to know what the kids like to eat and what they don’t like.

Some of that information comes through the “transactions” that occur at the cashiers after students go through the food lines.

“We do over a thousand transactions (a day) on the computers (at JHS) because we also have other things that they can choose from,” such as yogurt and smart snacks, Mack said.

The transactions show what the students are choosing to eat. That information is available to Mack, who then uses it to ensure accurate numbers in food planning and preparation along with menu planning.

At JHS, seven people work in the cafeteria, from food preparation to cashier. Prep for lunch starts early in the morning before most students have arrived, so the first group will be ready for lunch by 10:50 a.m. After that first lunch period, food is replenished for the second group.

By the time lunch periods are over, JPS will have served 1,800 meals on a typical day: 450 at JHS, another 450 at Jamestown Middle School and the remainder at the grade schools, Mack said. That includes students, instructors and other staff, she said.

Mary Grim, kitchen manager at JHS, said the greatest challenge in getting the food ready is timing.

“The choreographing,” she said. “Making sure all of your food is done all at the same time, even if they’re all different times for cooking ... it’s a lot of organizing” and communicating to the staff about the plan for the day.

Food safety is also critical, Mack said.

“I pretty much live by time and temperature control,” she said. She said that is one of Grim’s biggest jobs, ensuring food is safe to eat.

Lunches cost $3.10 at JMS and JHS and $3 at grade schools.

“That includes their milk, salad bar and their complete entrée,” Mack said.

Free and reduced price meals are also available. Reduced lunch meals are 40 cents and breakfasts are free to students who qualify for reduced lunch meals. Otherwise, breakfast costs $1.95 at JHS and JMS and $1.85 at grade schools. Mack would like to see more students eat breakfast.

In grade school, there are two entrée choices for lunch; at JMS, three or four choices, and at JHS, six choices, Mack said.

“It’s a lot of food for one person,” Grim said of what’s available for each meal.

The number of entrée choices on a given day can be affected by workforce shortages, said Mack. With a small staff, if there aren’t enough people available to work on a certain day, that may result in fewer entrée selections, she said.

Three JHS student council members who weighed in on the food Monday, Nov. 4, said they thought there were healthy options available.

“It’s quality for school food,” said Dominique Scobee, a freshman.

“I think the portion sizes are all right,” said Chandlar Rott, a junior. He said he thought the food service staff did a good job of getting people through the line and the food was warm.

Micah Hoke, a junior, said the staff were also good at taking suggestions for menu items for lunch. He had suggested a type of pizza that was tried, he said.

“We listen,” Grim said. “We try to change and do the things they would prefer. ... There are restrictions, we can’t do everything, but we try to cater to them. We’re definitely catering to the kids.”

The school district participates in the National School Lunch Program, a federal program that provides nutritionally balanced low-cost or no-cost lunches each day. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, participating school districts receive cash subsidies and USDA foods for each reimbursable meal they serve; the school districts in turn must serve lunches that meet federal requirements and offer reduced price and free meals to eligible students.

Commodity foods

Commodity foods, foods that are provided through the federal government to supplement the menu, also are important to what is on the menu for lunch. It’s a primary part of the menu planning process.

“It’s a lot different than the way it used to be,” Mack said of commodity foods. Ground beef is still available, but she said schools also get foods like barbecue pulled pork and teriyaki chicken.

“We’re serving (meals) for three dollars,” Mack said. “That’s why servings are also portioned. You have a government that’s gracious enough to give us funding … that we can put a meal out but, yeah, you’re not going to get what you go out to a restaurant to get.”

“For what we charge, it’s excellent for the amounts and the quality,” Grim said.

While portion sizes are regulated due to federal rules, they are not for fruits and vegetables, so students can have what they want.

The budget is one menu constraint for JPS.

“The money that pays for a larger portion of our program is our paid students,” Mack said. “The students who are actually (paying) full price. So, yes, we do count on students coming through our lines.”

About 32 percent of the meals in the district are free and reduced meals, Mack said. She would like to see more students who are eligible for free and reduced meals take advantage of that. The family just needs to fill out an application, which is available at each school office and the food service department at the central office, she said. The office figures the application and notifies the parent/household.

“There’s a lot of kids who need to be fed,” Grim said. “Some of them just don’t have a lot at home and this is what helps them,” she said of the school lunch program.

Fresh, local foods

Fresh food and especially food that can be obtained locally are also what Mack tries to include on the menu.

“We try and buy as much as we can locally,” she said. Cavendish Farms, Baker Boy and Dakota Growers products are among those used.

“We can’t always get it, but we do try,” she said. Price and budget are factors in what they can do. Mack said it’s important to provide healthy meals and many choices are made from scratch.

“I always tell all my cooks that you are an educator, just like a teacher,” Mack said. She said sometimes there will be offerings on the menu that some students may not have seen, such as kale in a salad.

“It’s not that we put it out there all the time but we’re educators and with the new meal guidelines, we are educators, because we start with kindergarten and we grow them right up till they’re 18. I think that’s one of the most important things we do. … We don’t put out garbage,” Mack said.

As a dietitian, Mack says it’s important what food comes through the schools. The new guidelines have influenced vendors, who are providing healthier versions of the foods supplied to schools.

jhs food bean dip.jpg
A special bean dip is a novelty vegetable choice for students eating at Jamestown High School. John M. Steiner / The Sun

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