DALLAS - Industrial blenders mix up smoothies for students in New York while some schools in California are adding salad bars. In Dallas, campus cafeterias use pass-through coolers and warmers to make sure the food is just right before it's served.
School districts across the country have made such upgrades in recent years as a way to entice children into healthier eating habits amid higher nutrition standards.
But paying for the makeovers poses a challenge for many districts, as heavy demand for a limited amount of federal money means schools must fund the projects on their own. Some have made gradual improvements, while others passed the bulk of the tab to taxpayers through large bond packages.
" ... We can't do it overnight," said Dora Rivas, who oversees child nutrition for the Dallas Independent School District. "It's very difficult for school districts to do it with their regular operating costs."
The district, which is the 14th largest in the nation, has used a variety of methods - including a $20 million bond program, a $372,000 federal grant and about $5 million from its budget - to improve about 90 kitchens over the last several years. Plus, another 20 schools are in line for upgrades once the money is found.
Federal grants exist but the dollars are scarce and the competition fierce. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture offered about $100 million for school kitchen upgrades, and received requests from almost 25,000 schools at a price of $640 million. Since then, the allotment has shrunk significantly: $25 million in 2010 and $11 million last year. In April, $25 million in grants were announced.
"The need is tremendous that is out there," said Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. "These grants can make a significant dent but they still remain hundreds of millions of dollars in need."
Although the USDA says 90 percent of schools are meeting the updated nutrition standards that were implemented two years ago, a survey of school food service officials by the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project - a collaboration between the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation - found that 88 percent of districts need at least one more piece of kitchen equipment.
Among the new standards, schools must offer more whole grains, fruit and vegetables. That means districts are seeking more refrigeration space to store large stocks of produce - such as walk-in refrigerators and freezers - as well as processors that slice and dice large amounts of food more quickly.
Debbi Beauvais, who oversees school nutrition at three school districts in Rochester, New York, said something as simple as offering breakfast smoothies meant purchasing two industrial-grade blenders for about $1,600 each. Other improvements over the years have included a $1 million renovation of a high school cafeteria to food court-style service.
Voter-approved bond packages are making up the difference in some districts across the nation. Fort Worth, Texas, approved $55 million in cafeteria upgrades last fall, and the Oakland, California, district will use a $40 million bond package to add a central kitchen and additional plumbing for salad bars.
"With this new central kitchen we'll be able to eliminate 80 percent of the packaged food and send out food in bulk to schools, where they will finish preparing the food items," said Jennifer LeBarre, who heads nutrition services for the Oakland Unified School District.
For the districts who can't find the money to upgrade their cafeterias, they're making do - but it's not easy. For example, without adequate refrigeration for produce, districts must have more frequent deliveries, which is more expensive.
The improvements at Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas, which were funded by bonds and the district, are making a difference. On a recent morning, the cafeteria crew retrieved food from their new walk-in fridge as they prepared items such as fish, oranges, cucumber salad and baked beans. An additional serving line has cut students' wait time.
"They've made my life a whole lot better," cafeteria supervisor Karen Craft said. "We love the new kitchen."