LAKE GEORGE -- As the students poured into the cafeteria, a man in a chef outfit was there to greet them.
He smiled at students, and held up a tray with samples of Jamaican chicken stew and minted mandarin oranges.
“How are you doing? Want to try a sample?” A.J. Richards told students as they arrived for lunch.
Richards, a chef at Dunham’s Bay Resort, was invited Wednesday to Lake George High School for “Guest Chef Day,” a first-time event.
Richards’ challenge was to prepare a meal using the same foods the school uses, while complying with federal regulations, and to cook up a lunch students would eat.
The meal included confetti corn bread with apple butter and rice pilaf.
The stew was made with red and green peppers, black beans, carrots, chicken and chicken stock — foods he found in the school’s pantry.
“I didn’t bring anything,” Richards said. “It’s the same chicken. I just prepared it differently.”
The stew proved popular with students. The samples vanished from Richards’ tray.
While some of the rice, cornbread and mandarin oranges were left uneaten, all the stew was served. Some students had seconds, and they complimented Richards’ cooking.
Paul Rabine, a seventh-grader, said inviting a chef was a good idea.
“I think that was a better choice for the school,” he said. “Usually, our lunch sizes are smaller. This filled me up more. It was delicious.”
“I thought it was pretty good,” said Austin Gentner, a 10th-grader. “It’s probably one of the best so far.”
This year, school lunches must meet requirements under the federal Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act.
Now, portion sizes are smaller, more whole grains are used, foods are low in fat and sodium, and meals must include a fruit or vegetable.
These are among the regulations, which became effective this school year.
While some of the regulations have since been temporarily lifted, local schools have found that many students don’t like the changes.
The biggest complaint has been the smaller food portions.
As a result, fewer students are buying lunch.
“There is no point in having all these requirements if they are not going to eat,” said Kate DuBois, business manager of the Lake George school district.
To sell more meals, local schools have sought new ways to make the food appealing.
Lake George, which is selling about 100 fewer lunches per day than last year, wrote letters inviting 50 area restaurants to prepare a lunch. Two responded.
Along with Dunham’s Bay Resort, Richard and Muriel Tasker, owners and chefs of the Raintree Restaurant, agreed to cook a lunch in May.
The chefs from both restaurants are volunteering. They worked with school leaders to develop the menu.
Richards said the smaller meal portions and the limited products available to him made it difficult to follow the regulations.
“I was actually shocked,” Richards said. “They are limited by so much.”
This year, the school began offering samples on days when new meals were introduced. Yet it was still a struggle.
“The hardest part sometimes is to get kids to try it,” said Annette Chamberlain, the school’s food service manager.
This year, the school added a deli section, allowing students to watch as sandwiches are prepared to their liking.
Signs were also put up to remind students they must take a fruit or vegetable, as the regulations require. If students don’t take it, they pay the full price for each product they buy, instead of the reduced price for the meal.
Students must take a fruit or vegetable for the lunch to count as a meal, which allows the school to receive federal reimbursement.
Food service programs rely on the federal reimbursement plus revenue from selling lunches to cover expenses. The school district does not fund the lunch program.
While lunch programs often run a deficit, losses at some schools have been greater this year.
Healthier foods are more expensive. When lunch sales are down, revenue drops, officials say.
At Fort Ann, the school district has hired Chartwells, a food service company, for at least the last eight years to oversee the lunch program. But this year, faced with a projected $15,000 deficit, the company plans to withdraw its contract at year’s end, said Superintendent Maureen VanBuren.
Fort Ann is trying new ways to sell more lunches. The school plans to host a barbecue and a day when lunch will be free, all to entice students, VanBuren said.
“We are seeing more kids bring their lunches and they are far from healthy,” VanBuren said. “That’s the problem. Kids are not used to eating healthy foods. It’s a cultural change.”
At Schuylerville, the elementary/middle school building set up a table in the cafeteria to offer new fruits and vegetables each day this week. The options included sweet potato puffs, fruit salad and brownies made with spinach and blueberries.
Kristy Wilbur, Schuylerville’s food service director, wrote in an email to The Post-Star that the event went better than expected. But it has been a struggle to sell fruits and vegetables throughout the year.
While the portion sizes for fruits and vegetables has increased, that does not translate into students consuming more of them, Wilbur wrote.
“Another struggle has been the requirement to serve a legume weekly,” Wilbur wrote. “We have tried many different recipes, using every type of bean, but our students are definitely not interested. We will keep trying.”
At Lake George, Richards provided the school with the recipe for Jamaican chicken stew, so the meal might return in the future.
The school was able to meet the requirement to serve beans because they were included in the stew.
School officials were pleased students were eating vegetables.
“The kids are eating,” Chamberlain said. “They are eating black beans.”