When more students eat school lunch, the quality of the lunch improves, at least in districts like Austin Independent School District, which had another turn in the national press this week.


School lunch advocate Jennifer Gaddis wrote an op-ed in the New York Times called "Why Are You Still Packing Lunch for Your Kids?" about some of the same issues I’ve been writing about locally.


The gist: In many areas of the country, school lunch has improved to the point that parents who pack lunches for their kids should at least consider having their students eat the school lunch a few times a week.



Increased participation means bigger buying power to improve the quality of ingredients served, which AISD food services and nutrition director Anneliese Tanner has made a priority since taking over the job five years ago.


Tanner, who was named a Good Food Institutional Hero from the Good Food Purchasing Program last year, has been increasing the quantity of scratch-made meals and local produce used, but this week, the district announced that the more than 100 schools in the district will now be serving grass-fed ground beef.


"Due to an increase in student meal participation, all AISD cafes will now offer local, grass-fed ground beef from Augustus Ranch in Yoakam, Texas," Tanner said via press release.


Parents had indicated that this was a priority in the annual AISD Food Service survey, and deliveries of this pasture-raised meat started in January. The district estimates that they’ll use 73,200 pounds of beef this school year to make meals, including nachos, enchiladas, meatloaf and the ever-popular crispy beef tacos.


AISD was already serving grass-fed burger patties at high schools in the 2018-19 school year and at middle schools this year. Another new addition coming this spring: organic chicken meatballs from the Austin-based Beetnik Foods.


Tanner notes that there are still a few beef products that are not grass-fed: burger patties at elementary schools, and beef fajita and barbacoa, which are offered at high schools.


Now that grass-fed beef is on the menu, what’s next?


In 2018, Tanner calculated that if every student not currently eating lunch ate school it twice a week, AISD could serve entirely organic produce, and if students who aren’t eating school lunch now ate it three times a week, AISD could serve organic milk at every meal.



Also of note: Although many school districts around Texas struggle to keep up with school lunch debt, which has sparked a number of creative — and moving — fundraisers in recent years, AISD launched a crowdsourced fundraiser account in December to help them recoup the costs of these courtesy meals.


The fundraiser hit its $10,000 goal within a few weeks, topping off at $11,560. (The fundraiser is still open for the remainder of the semester. Go to give.livingtree.com and search "AISD.")


"I was once blessed when I needed it most and now I want to pass it on," wrote one donor. "May God bless every single student and family who may benefit from this gift."