In the first month since Bozeman High School dropped out of the federal school lunch program, its cafeteria has been attracting more customers.

“We’re off to a good start,” Bob Burrows, the man in charge of Bozeman’s school lunches, told School Board trustees Monday night.

“Our traffic is way up — over 1,000 (customers a day) regularly,” Burrows said. Last year, he said, “That wasn’t the case.”

“Extra food” sales, which happen mainly at the high school, exceeded $54,000 for the entire school district in September — a jump of 48 percent from nearly $37,000 last year and $48,000 two years ago. Extra food sales are anything less than what the federal government considers a complete meal, from a healthy sandwich to sugary cookies.

For all 11 Bozeman schools, the lunch program has counted $73,221 in deposits so far this school year, up $1,441 from the same time last year.

On the other hand, the numbers of complete meals sold is down from two years ago, at the elementary and middle schools (which remain in the federal program) as well as the high school.

The School Board split 5-3 in July when it agreed to suspend the high school’s participation in the National School Lunch Program. Under the Obama administration, the national program has set stricter rules lowering calories, fat and salt in lunches and requiring more whole grains, fruits and vegetables to combat America’s epidemic of childhood obesity.

Bozeman High has an open campus and many students responded to shrinking cookie sizes and the loss of Gatorade, Rice Krispy treats, brownies and ice cream sandwiches by leaving and buying lunch at nearby fast-food restaurants.

The school district’s food service is required to be self-supporting so it doesn’t take dollars away from classrooms. Last year’s loss, originally estimated at $35,000, ended up about $16,000, according to Steve Johnson, deputy superintendent. Losses are a blow to a program that recently spent $4.5 million to upgrade and expand its central kitchens.

So even though it meant losing $117,000 in federal food commodities, the School Board agreed to experiment with suspending the federal program at Bozeman High. The decision sparked several letters to the editor from parents and nutritionists critical of abandoning the federal rules.

Burrows and Brittany Bennett, school district nutritionist, told the School Board that to replace federal commodity beef, the district is buying local beef from the B-Bar Ranch in Emigrant.

Some 55 percent of foods are made from scratch in Bozeman school kitchens, which is “crazy” in an industry that relies heavily on pre-packaged food, they said. Burrows said they make their own honey mustard, using 25 gallons of local honey in every batch.

The school district has imposed its own nutrition goals for Bozeman High lunches, based on the previous year’s federal guidelines for healthy foods. The goals are: 825 calories minimum; 30 percent of calories from fat; less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat; 1,500mg of sodium; 2 ounces of meat; 8 ounces of milk; a minimum half-cup of fruit; 1 ounce of grain minimum, and 50 percent of items served must be “whole-grain rich.” If Bozeman High had stayed with the federal program, lunches would have been limited to between 750 and 850 calories.

The high school has launched smart phone apps and a page on the school district’s website so students and parents can see the choices on the menu each day, photos of each dish and nutrition content (http://bdcne.ws/1PrVOmR).

On Tuesday, for example, the hot choices were chili nachos with low-fat cheddar and multi-grain tortilla chips (720 calories, 1,539 mg salt, 46 grams fat) and tropic delight pizza with lean ham and pineapple (388 calories, 1,090 mg sodium, 13 grams fat). Teens could also choose from a variety of sandwiches, salads, fruits and vegetables.

“My daughter loves your tacos,” Trustee Elizabeth Williamson said. But she and other trustees who voted against leaving the federal program wanted to know more about the cafeteria’s snacks.

Burrows said Bozeman has decided that 70 percent of snacks will follow federal healthy Smart Snacks guidelines. The other 30 percent won’t, including some “almost” smart snacks as well as foods with “no nutritional value.” The 30 percent includes mainly drinks, he said.

Snacks and their nutrition information aren’t listed on the school website.

Burrows said two promotions are being held this week to get students engaged with the lunch program. Students who come up with the best names for their cafeterias can win bikes at two elementary schools and an iPad mini at the high school.

Burrows said in coming months he plans to ask the School Board to loosen its ban on all carbonated drinks at Bozeman High vending machines, because the school is missing out on a lot of sales.

Superintendent Rob Watson said they’re not thinking of bringing back soda pop, but drinks like sparkling water.

Watson also has appointed about a dozen people to the Superintendent’s Commission on Food Service and Nutrition Education. Trustee Sandy Wilson said the group is looking into the school lunch program and into teaching good nutrition habits in the schools. It will report back in November and March.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

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Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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