He’s in charge of feeding school students in Beeville and Gregory-Portland.
“I’m a military man,” he says. “Give me the rules, and I’ll follow them.”
But right now, he is trying to cope with a lot of uncertainty.
Even his title is fluid. In Beeville, he is the school district’s food service director; at the Gregory-Portland school district, he’s the food nutrition director.
“Many parents don’t understand that we have to run this operation like a restaurant,” Atkinson says, who admits his dream was to run a restaurant (on his office floor in Beeville is a framed sign that reads “Fine Cuisine.”).
Last year, his “restaurants” were a $4 million operation, serving more than 284,000 meals.
This year, he’s confused — because, starting this semester, he’s expected to comply with new rules for school lunches issued by the United States Department of Agriculture, the Texas Department of Agriculture, the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act, the Texas Public School Nutrition Policy and the demands of 8,800 students (3,400 at BISD, 4,400 at GPISD), many of whom still think french fries are a vegetable and place pizza at the top of the foods chain.
Reacting to concerns about the growing number of U.S. schoolchildren who are obese, national guidelines for the school lunch program have changed — both in what foods are offered and how they are chosen.
“We used to track the amounts of total fat, saturated fat and made sure each meal was above a minimum amount of calories,” Atkinson says.
Now, each meal must be measured by minimum and maximum calorie levels, amounts of saturated fat and sodium and each meal must include fruit and vegetables.
In addition, the spectrum is coming into play.
“We have to plan the vegetables following a color code,” he says.
For instance, this coming year, you won’t find any iceberg lettuce in the salads. Instead, they will be prepared with dark green Romaine lettuce.
“Iceberg lettuce has no nutritional value,” he explains.
The rainbow guidelines include:
• Dark Green — Romaine lettuce, broccoli, bok choy, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, watercress and kale.”
“I can’t see many of our kids selecting kale,” Atkinson says.
• Red/Orange — sweet potatoes and carrots.
This year, each student will be served a vegetable, whether he eats it or not.
Colors aside, his major hurdle is bread. Some of the guidelines are impossible to meet.
Under the new rules, breads are supplied a serving number based on the flour content. One hamburger, for instance, equals 2, because of the two buns.
The maximum daily bread count is 2.
But the average pizza count is three.
“The three bread companies we usually contact for bids are scrambling to lower their flour content,” he says.
By conferring with other food service directors across the state, Atkinson says he has found one or two out of scores of pizzas that can meet the criteria.
“We offer sandwiches every day,” he says. “That equates to 10 bread counts, but we only can serve 9.
The answer: half a sandwich and soup.
He also has just located a bread manufacturer who offers a kind of pita bread whose slices are so thin it complies, just barely.
The confusion stems from guidelines that first were adopted last January, but continue to be updated and revised.
Atkinson, who originally worked for GPISD, took on the responsibility of directing food services for both districts 18 months ago.
“What a lot of people don’t understand,” he says, “is that we are a profit business working within a nonprofit organization.”
Translation: when it comes to school meals, he has to break even.
Earlier this month, the BISD board approved a 10-cent hike in school lunch costs.
Still, with the confidence borne from his U.S. Air Force time handling reconnaissance photographs taken by the SR71, a spy plane that routinely flew on the edge of space at Mach 3, Atkinson is certain the problems he is trying to solve will not be evident in the school cafeterias.
“I don’t think the kids will notice the difference,” he says.
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.