School food options

Greater Johnstown elementary school students grab a bite Thursday, March 11, 2021, during National School Breakfast Week.

Typically, Greater Johnstown Elementary School parent Christine Dahlin sends her children to school with packed lunches because the family is vegetarian.

But when Dahlin saw an alternative option on a recent menu, she decided to give the school meals a chance.

She met with Greater Johnstown nutrition director Dave Trotz about expanding the meatless offerings.

“When I talked to Dave, he said, ‘We can fix this, and I can have vegetarian options every day,’ ” Dahlin said.

Many area schools now offer vegetarian options with student meals.

Ideally, Dahlin would like to see vegetarian options a few times per week, but is appreciative of any progress.

“My hope is that the lunch program will continue to improve its offerings for people with special needs,” she said.

Dahlin said she has been pleased with Trotz and the district’s response to her request.

“Dave has been wonderful in being willing to work with me,” she said.

Dahlin reported that the week after the first alternative dish was served, her children told her that a vegetarian lasagna was offered. 

Salads, other choices 

Greater Johnstown isn’t the only school district in the area that offers students different options for lunch.  

Conemaugh Valley also provides a similar array of options, food service director Jenna Russell said.

Every day there are three to four alternatives to what is scheduled on the menu.

At the junior-senior high school, that could be pizza or a sandwich – and the elementary has similar fare.

Both schools offer salads to the students daily, as well as vegetarian options.

“We often have many entrees that are meatless and could accommodate this request,” Russell said. “We have several meatless options on hand. “

If a student requires a vegan diet, school officials would accommodate that, Russell said.

The same goes for Richland and Westmont Hilltop – both served by Metz Culinary Management Inc.

“It’d just be a matter of students letting the school know to get options,” Richland food service manager Bob Lonsinger said.

Both schools carry a number of choices for students that meet a variety of diets. 

‘Turned on its head’ 

Westmont food service director Don McIntosh said learners in all grades have several meals to pick from each day.

Those range from a typical lunch to vegan choices and even vegetarian fare because the industry has gravitated toward those areas.

“School lunches has kind of been turned on its head,” McIntosh said.

He’s been in the food service business for schools for 20 years and noted that, in the beginning of his career, the most he’d have to be concerned about was a peanut allergy.

Now, dietary choices, such as vegan lunches, are popular requests for students.

“It just kind of trends up and down,” McIntosh said.

Westmont offers students deconstructed meals that allow the learners in kindergarten through 12th grade to customize their lunches.

McIntosh gave the example of pasta dishes that feature different sauce and protein options.

There’s also “go-to items” that provide more accessible meals to a variety of students, including pre-made salads. 

Student feedback 

Richland High School has seven different stations serving a variety of food each day of the week, although three are shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

From pizza, cheeseburgers and chicken patties or nuggets to a stir-fry line and fresh sandwiches, there’s something for everyone, school officials said.

However, similar to the other schools, there aren’t many requests for vegan options.

During Lonsinger’s six years in the position, there have only been a few students that asked for that type of food.

Lonsinger said if more requests were made, the district would be happy to accommodate the learners.

In order to stay up to date on what students want, the food service director meets with the student council a few times per year to discuss lunch options.

That hasn’t happened as much this school year due to COVID-19, but Lonsinger said his department takes the suggestions and makes adjustments to the school offerings as needed.

Joshua Byers is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @Journo_Josh.

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