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Take food services off town plate

November 18, 2018

GREENWICH — Students wash down their oily, limp cheese pizza with chocolate milk, then turn to their vegetables — three baby carrots and four slices of bell pepper — with a cookie for dessert.

“I would come in and see what the kids were eating, and it did not look appealing at all,” said Hala Si-Ahmed, the mother of twins at Glenville School. “The more lunches I attended, the more I heard complaints. The food wasn’t tasty. Even the pizza was ‘yucky.’”

Si-Ahmed packs her kids’ lunches daily, and works with the Glenville PTAC to improve nutrition at the school and encourage healthy eating among students and parents. She is one of many parents pushing for a complete overhaul of the Food Services program run by the Greenwich Public Schools.

Frustrated parents have even volunteered to chop fresh vegetables for their schools, said

Stephanie Woodward, whose children attend International School at Dundee and Eastern Middle School.

“Parents want to do something, but they can’t,” Woodward said. Her kids have never and will never buy the school lunches in their current state, she said.

“Every child in the school district has an iPad or a Chromebook, we now have a new jumbotron at the high school, but the kids on free- or reduced-price lunch are getting junk,” Woodward said. “No one seems to care.”

Greenwich Board of Education chairman Peter Bernstein hears similar stories at home from his kids.

“What are we serving?” Bernstein asked John Hopkins, director of Food Services, during a school board meeting Wednesday. “I’m not talking about healthy options, I’m talking about remaking the entire menu.”

School board members indicated they have an appetite for changing the menu. They referred the discussion to the district’s Food Services Committee, made up of town and school board representatives along with school administrators.

Board and town representatives are leading the charge, persuading school administrators to examine food quality and cost. They are also weighing the options of going off the National School Lunch program, like Greenwich High did, or contracting an outside meal service.

“Going off school lunch program and outsourcing are two separate, but parallel tracks,” board member Lauren Rabin said.

Advocates like Rabin say outsourcing to a third party to purchase food, prepare and deliver meals to the district’s three middle schools and 11 elementary schools. Proponents say an outside vendor could make healthier meals and cut labor costs.

Bad food

Rib meat in Tyson chicken nuggets. High fructose corn syrup in French toast sticks. Products with Blue #1, Red #40, Yellow #5 and #6, azodicarbonamide, known carcinogens Butylated hydroxyanisole and Hydroxytoluene.

“Looking at the ingredients, it says enough,” Si-Ahmed said.

Adhering to the national guidelines does not ensure healthy options, concerned parents say. They point to the menu and to the results of a survey of parents and students that Food Services conducted in 2017, and presented to the school board last week.

In the survey, 60 percent of middle-school parents said they would like a better variety of options, and 56 percent asked for less chips, cookies and ice cream and more healthy snacks and desserts. Also, 53 percent would like to see organic or fresh fruits and vegetables, and 30 percent want locally sourced foods.

“We’ve been trying to tone down processed food,” Hopkins said. “I challenge you to find any program running on the National School Lunch Program that’s using similar foods.”

The department has tried to improve, Si-Ahmed said. Kids have access to a mini-vegetable bar, but the produce is unappealing and no one encourages children to take the items, she said.

Food Services responded by substituting Rice Krispie Treats, General Mills cereal bars and Frito Lay chips with Smartfood Popcorn, Pirate’s Booty, Whole Grain Goldfish and Nutrigrain bars in many K-8 schools, Hopkins said.

The data from the parent survey reinforced the changes made by food services, and food services is continually working to improve food quality, Hopkins said.

In the student survey, about 37 percent said they do not buy hot lunches. Of those, 38 percent bring lunch, 27 percent do not like the choices and 20 percent said lines are too long. Almost 300 students made comments, which were not included in the public report.

Abbe Large, a member of the Representative Town Meeting who sits on the education and food services committee, provided some of the colorful comments from the kids:

“I have noticed from other kids eating lunches, that the food can often be low quality. I’ve even had friends who throw the main part of their lunch away because they find the food slightly sickening.”

“The food is cheap and processed junk and I hate it all.”

“I don’t eat school lunch because with my past experience with school lunch, I found it unhealthy and tasting bad. I would much rather bring lunch and know what’s in it than eat a mystery food in the cafeteria.”

Comments repeatedly included these words: “bad,” 32 times; “gross,” 26; “good,” 49; “disgusting,” 14; “healthy,” 52; “gross,” 26; “quality,” 18; “good,” 49; “disgusting,” 14; “taste,” 43; “like,” 31; and “choice,” 10.

“Every menu can be improved, there is no doubt about it,” Hopkins said.

National School Lunch Plan

The district’s 11 elementary schools and three middle schools still adhere to the guidelines of the National School Lunch Plan, which ensure children have at least one nutritious meal a day.

The Food Services department expects to receive $777,423 from federal and state programs, accounting for 19 percent of its revenue. Lunch sales, catering services, rebates and contributions from vendors account for the other 81 percent.

Students on free- or reduced-price lunch rely on adults to decide on healthy meals, Large said. But not only are a lot of these children not eating because the food isn’t appealing, she said, they’re also throwing the food away.

“A lot of what we heard in the community, is that it’s not consumed,” Rabin said. “I have to wonder ... is there any correlation to academic performance?”

Students qualify for a basic meal if their family’s income falls below federally specified levels. Previously, families had to apply and be certified, but now the state uses Medicaid to automatically certify children.

This March, 893 students qualified, and the number of free- or reduced-price qualifying students increased to 19.9 percent of students, from 14.6 percent last year.

These students are entitled to the school’s basic meal. At the high school, that means they can get the daily plate lunch, but not the new, trendy açaí bowl, frozen fruit puree topped with fruit and granola.

“I’d be more than happy to tick my food costs up ... but there’s no guarantee that it will result in higher participation,” Hopkins said. “I have to manage my budget the best I can.”

For the first time since the 2005, Food Services made a profit. It finished the 2017-18 fiscal year with more than $150,000 surplus, pulling from a budget deficit of $680,000. Elementary schools pull in over $500,000, while the middle and high schools total about $100,000 each, Hopkins said.

Hopkins’ highest costs are not ingredients, but labor. He has already pared down to one worker per food station, he said.

“Where we go the most wrong is labor costs, I have that at every level,” said Jeffrey Ramer, the Board of Estimate and Taxation representative to the food services committee.

Most food contract companies say there is no downside to getting off federal guidelines, Hopkins said. Weston, Wilton and Westport districts have gone off, but only 1 percent to 2 percent of their children qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, he said.

Outsourcing

The group of passionate parents pushing for change endorses outsourcing the school lunch program to No Fuss Lunch.

The New Jersey-based company makes entrees from scratch, without high fructose corn syrup, MSG, dyes or added nitrates and with meat and dairy products that are grass-fed and cage-free. When it includes ready-made products, it buys from brands such as Applegate, Bell & Evans and Annie’s Homegrown Foods.

It also encourages schools to stock salad bars with fresh local fruits and vegetables.

No Fuss Lunch does not contract with federally subsidized schools. Instead, families who qualified for free- or reduced-price lunches can apply for grants that would pay for their lunches through the company’s nonprofit lunch fund.

The service would the school’s kitchen facilities, supplying rental income to the town, and would be responsible for the upkeep, Large said. In other schools, it has hired on food service employees who worked for the previous provider.

“The schools are good at teaching our children, but they’re not good at feeding our children,” Si-Ahmed said. “This No Fuss Lunch company knows what they’re doing. The schools should stick to teaching our kids, why not outsource that?”

jo.kroeker@hearstmediact.com

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