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A survey led by students leads to collaboration with Leechburg Area's food service director

A group of Leechburg Area elementary students made a survey about food preferences, aiming to bring back or keep their favorite breakfast and lunch items at the school cafeteria.

Several Leechburg Area elementary students made a survey about food in the school cafeteria, hoping to bring back or keep their favorite breakfast and lunch items.

Because of a collaboration between fifth grade student council members from David Leech Elementary School and district food service director Tess Diehl, certain menu items will be kept, added, or removed based on the survey results from this month.

Members of the student council at David Leech Elementary School worked together to create and conduct a food survey for third, fourth and fifth graders.


Joyce Hanz | TribLive
David Leech Elementary fifth graders (from left) Thaddeus Hengelbrok, Demigael Depena and Landon Horneman present the results of a food survey conducted among elementary students as school board member Anthony Townsend listens Wednesday.

The student council presented the survey results on Wednesday to the school board using a PowerPoint presentation.

The presentation included statistics and foods that students want to see back on the menu, such as the Southwest chicken bowl, sausage egg and cheese biscuit, General Tso’s chicken bowl, and pepperoni calzones. They also want to keep loaded pierogies, the “Leechburger,” chicken cheddar ranch hoagie, and breakfast pizza on the menu.

“Our job is to adjust to what the kids want. It was excellent and very informative,” Diehl said about the presentation. “I thought they liked the cereal, but the survey showed they don’t.”

It turns out that spilled milk is a major reason why many students want to stop having cereal.

Out of the 129 students who took the online survey, 48% said they do not want the cafeteria to serve cereal anymore.

Among the reasons for removing cereal: It’s messy, young students spill their milk when pouring it, most kids have cereal at home, they want something more filling, and they can’t succeed and learn on an empty stomach.

And strawberries?

They were chosen as the favorite fruit, followed by grapes.

Diehl is taking the students’ presentation seriously and has already made changes to April’s monthly menu.

“On Fridays, cereal will be offered as an option instead of the only choice,” Diehl said. “They want the doughnuts back, so I plan to do that. I appreciate their enthusiasm. It’s wonderful that they are involved and passionate about the food menu. I was thankful that they conducted the survey.”


Joyce Hanz | TribLive
Leechburg Area School District food service director Tess Diehl serves pizza to a student Wednesday during lunch.

Another key finding from the survey was a love of “breakfast for lunch.”

Adriana mentioned that one food item in particular received the most love in the survey and was considered a “must keep.”

“The walking taco,” she said. “I discovered that many students have a wide range of likes. It was cool to do.”

Jackson noted that the survey generated positive buzz among his peers.

“They were interested. I don’t think anyone was talking during our presentation to the students,” he said.

The students observed that the survey was not intended to criticize the school menu.

“Our school cafeteria is already excellent,” stated student council adviser Danielle Matus. “We simply want to improve it together.”

At Leechburg, all students in grades K-12 attend the same school and eat in the same cafeteria.

“The impact of this survey on the students will stay with them as they progress beyond elementary school,” Matus said.

Many of the foods asked for by students in the survey results are healthy, Diehl said.

“I believe the fresh fruits and vegetables program contributed to that,” she said.

Last year, Leechburg Area received a grant for the federally sponsored Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program.

Through the program, some students had the opportunity to try fruits and vegetables they had never tasted before, such as blood oranges, watermelon, honeydew, Asian pears, and mangoes.

“We don’t have the program this year,” Diehl said. “I’m hopeful we get the grant this year for fall. That program 100% helped the kids to learn about making healthy food choices.”

The program is a federally supported initiative that provides fresh fruits and vegetables to children at eligible elementary schools. The selection of schools is based on federal funding.

“From what we tasted through the FFVP, it inspired us to try to have some of those fresh fruits and vegetables again this year for breakfast and lunch,” Thaddeus said.

Leechburg is eligible for free breakfast and lunch for all students.

Another finding from the survey indicated that students desire larger portions. However, due to federal nutrition guidelines, Diehl said she cannot serve more than the recommended 2 ounces for a serving of protein. Among other guidelines, she said: Milk must be 1%, flavored milk must be fat-free, and all breads and rice must be whole grains.

“The fan favorite is pizza, and I serve that every Friday. And it has a whole grain crust,” Diehl said.

However, there are no minimum serving sizes with the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program.

According to information provided by Taj Magruder, press secretary for the state Department of Education, federal nutrition standards established during the Obama era in 2012 remain largely the same.

“The National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs are in line with the dietary guidelines for Americans,” he said.

Last year’s state budget allocated $46.5 million to provide universal free breakfast for 1.7 million students, in addition to ensuring all 22,000 students eligible for reduced-price lunches through the National School Lunch Program receive lunch at no cost, Magruder said.

“With the 2024-25 proposed budget, Gov. (Josh) Shapiro is building upon this important work by calling for $16.7 million to continue to ensure kids can learn with a full stomach and be more successful in the classroom,” he said.

Food purchasing decisions are made at the local level but must be in accordance with applicable law.

“The state does not preauthorize or approve purchases,” Magruder said.

Matus observed student council members discussing the topic of school food choices with great enthusiasm.

She encouraged them to take it to the next level and utilize it as a teachable moment.

Matus said the students took charge of the project. They made the surveys, gave them to the students, and also handled the technical tasks.

Landon found it fulfilling to work with other students.

He realized that helping other students in his grade required time, and he enjoyed it because he collaborated with his friends.

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