It’s almost like ordering from a fast food franchise, except the meals are offered in school cafeterias across the county.

Beaufort County School District’s new food service vendor, The Nutrition Group, has kicked off its inaugural year with Nutrislice – a menu app for families. The app gives parents and students the ability to access their particular school’s menu online using their mobile device.

Reports from the users so far are that the app is a success.

“I receive a lot of phone calls from parents on different subjects,” said Sheila Burtz, the district assistant coordinator for the finance department and the food service department. “This is one of the topics that they are enjoying, where they can see on a daily basis the menus, and then the children can make their decision if they want to eat lunch in the cafeteria or take their lunch.”

Nutrislice provides nutritional details and photos of the menu items, including descriptions, ingredients, carb counts, allergens, or special dietary information. It also offers the users the ability to rate each menu item. That will help the vendor fine-tune the menus for individual schools.

Joe Geisweidt, general manager for The Nutrition Group and the food service department at Beaufort County School District, knows the app has been widely used, based on conversations with both students and parents.

“In the Nutrislice app, all the schools are listed, and they’re available for all the students, so the parent may have multiple children in different buildings, and they’re able to access those menus both for lunch and for breakfast,” he said.

The menu might be the same across the district for certain grades or it might vary.

“The menu options may change slightly, and whether it might even be the main menu option all depends on the area and the grade levels that we’re serving,” Geisweidt said.

Another option on the app is choosing items based on allergies, Geisweidt said. If a student has a gluten allergy, for example, a click on the app will remove all items that have gluten.

The new vendor, which replaced one the district had employed for 22 years, has listed a number of innovative programs they anticipate gradually introducing to the schools, including Farm to Fork, Wellness Wednesdays, Food Fusion, Tasty Bites, and Recipes of the Month.

“Like any new program, you can’t roll everything out at one time, so we started with some of the big items that we can make an immediate impact with. Fresh-dough pizza for all grade levels is one thing that is offered at the high school level. The fresh-dough pizza is offered on a daily basis, along with the variety of fresh fruits and vegetables for all grade levels,” said Geisweidt. “We’re making immediate impact in those areas trying to offer more healthy choices along with different wraps and hoagies and salad.”

There are even options for those students on the go who find themselves caught in tight bus schedules or school activities.

Grab-and-Gos might be a pre-packaged item from Pillsbury, or maple-flavored pancakes. A student could grab that and a juice or milk for breakfast, and be able to eat it quickly and get to class.

In addition to a new vendor and menu roll-out, the school year began with a return to pre-COVID paid, free and reduced lunch fees, something that has confused some families with the new year.

“All school districts across the United States had to go back to what the government refers to as normal,” Geisweidt said. “That has been confusing for parents because we went three years where all the meals were free to all students, regardless of the income levels.”

The average meal cost for paid students is $1.75 for lunch for elementary students and $2.25 for secondary students. Breakfast for all paid students is $1.

Although those students who fit the paid or reduced meal fees are charged, there are still some whose accounts are unpaid for whatever reason. That costs the district money.

“We typically incur anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 in unpaid meal balances per year. We haven’t fully reconciled those for the end of this year, but we do have a number of balances that accumulate throughout the year from not paying up,” said Tonya Crosby, chief financial officer for the district. “We can’t deny students the meals so we won’t turn them away without food.”

Crosby said financial donations from the community help offset the meal balances. Burtz at the district office is the contact for those efforts.

On the lighter side, The Nutrition Group at the beginning of October brought its corporate chefs into the high schools to cook a new dish in front of the students in their cafeterias.

“It’s what we call the spaghetti bowl and a sandwich, which is a food infusion product that we have developed. It’s spaghetti and grilled cheese combined, and grilled, and it’s going to be offered to all the students at the high school level,” said Geisweidt.

“The adults are waiting patiently as well. We have tasted it, and it’s a really good sandwich,” said Burtz laughing. “It sounds a little scary, but it’s delicious.”

Crosby said that despite changing companies the district was very satisfied.

“We’ve definitely seen improvement in the food quality, and that was one of the main concerns that we had,” she said. “Sheila and I have been visiting schools, and we’ve been eating lunch in the cafeterias, monitoring their progress and talking to students. Everyone that we’re talking to is very pleased with the quality and the changes that have been made. So we are very happy.”

Crosby also mentioned that the district is hiring.

“We still have some positions to fill and in order to get fully staffed in all of our buildings, particularly in the Hilton Head and Bluffton area, we’re looking for new employees.”

That’s one way to get in on the next food fusion opportunity in the cafeteria.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.