Meal prices are flat despite inflation and supply challenges

With a menu shaped by student desires for more diverse food options, Gwinnett County Public Schools is serving up fare that nutrition staff say is better, healthier and more inclusive than ever — all at the enduring maximum price of $2.50.

Think Dandan noodles, dumplings, empanadas, halal hamburgers, a twist on the Southern classic “chicken” and waffles with poultry-free — but Gwinnett officials say still tasty — vegetarian nuggets.

Rachel Petraglia, the district’s executive chef of more than a decade, said the recent changes have been driven by student and parent input.

“Students are interested in food and expect global flavors and plant-forward options,” she said.

Petraglia keeps up with food trends as she works on the menu for the state’s largest school district. And in the kitchens, you don’t just see the staffs — which range from a handful of people at smaller schools up to 25 at a high school — zapping frozen foods.

“We really do a lot of cooking here,” she said.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

As a result, school staffs can cater to students’ tastes. If a dish with a little spice seemed to be a hit at one school, then they can incorporate similar flavors into other items.

But a conversation with a Muslim parent made Petraglia realize she could do more to make the cafeteria an inviting place.

Many Muslims follow religious dietary laws in which some foods are halal, the Arabic word for permitted. Petraglia felt the school menus were accessible to Muslims because there were plenty of vegetarian options that were halal.

The parent felt otherwise and said Muslim children should be able to eat meat in schools, sitting with their non-Muslim friends and having the same meal. Petraglia sourced a hamburger made from beef prepared under halal practices and introduced it last year. Now, it’s the hamburger used in all school kitchens.

“We have students from all over the world, and the cafeteria is the one place that they all come at some point during the school day,” Karen Hallford, director of school nutrition, said. “So we want to have options for them, so we offer as much variety as we possibly can so they can get in the line and hopefully find something that’s good to them.”

Some items like the halal meat and international offerings come at a higher price point. The district decided those were important initiatives worth the added cost and found other areas to cut back, Hallford said.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“We have to be smart with menu planning,” she said.

The district served 29.6 million student meals last school year, and Petraglia said more than half of students in Gwinnett regularly eat food made in school kitchens. She hopes that number will go up with the new menu options.

This school year marks another change. It’s the first time since 2020 that students will have to pay for meals.

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Federal pandemic waivers that allowed districts to stop charging for meals have expired, so qualifying families must apply for their children to receive free or reduced-price meals. Gwinnett schools with a large enrollment of low-income students provide free breakfast.

Despite rising costs of ingredients and ongoing challenges to the national supply chain, the meal price is not going up this year. In fact, it hasn’t changed since 2014.

Sydney Gardenhire, a freshman at Seckinger High School, has tried some lunchroom staples like pizza and vegetarian nuggets in the first few days of the school year. She felt the meals were about average — neither bad nor “super good,” although she commended the fresh fruit selection.

Gardenhire said she’d be glad to try the global options once she saw them in line. She felt dishes inspired by Asian cuisines would be a hit with students.

Her two main wishes for the menu: pasta and desserts.

“Just having the normal hot dogs, hamburgers, stuff like that kind of gets boring sometimes,” she said.


MORE DETAILS

Gwinnett school meal prices

Breakfast: $1.50; Title I schools have free breakfast

Elementary school lunch: $2.25

Middle and high school lunch: $2.50