Changing school lunch program: cost and quality first ingredients

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

The first step toward a better food service program for Williston schools was taken Monday night by parents, teachers and school administrators. During the first of two meetings that will address the schools’ current food service crisis, all agreed on the importance of offering affordable and nutritional foods, while at the same time increasing participation in the program and curbing the program’s huge deficit.

Last year, the food service program ran at a deficit of nearly $68,000. Bob Mason, chief operations officer for the Chittenden South Supervisory Union, said the current program is in “roughly the same shape” as last year. Mason said the School Board was to get an official number at Wednesday’s School Board meeting.

Participation is also a major issue. Williston schools average just 35 percent participation from students, while the state average is at 52 percent.

Also discussed was former food service director Lydia King’s resignation. Her last day is this week. Leo LaForce and Colleen French, food service employees at Champlain Valley Union High School, will cover operations at Williston Central and Allen Brook schools after the winter break.

School officials did not comment on whether or not King’s resignation was due to the struggling food service program.

Mason said that the food service committee has been meeting since last year and looking at other schools in the state that do well in their programs. They’ve also been looking at what outside vendors could offer.

“Our intent tonight is to look forward,” Mason said at the meeting. “We believe if we can look forward, we can find solutions and find alternatives to help fix the issue.”

About 20 attendees, mostly parents, broke into four groups in order to brainstorm answers to three questions: What is the role of food service in the Williston schools?; how would you measure success and what characteristics would a well-run program have?; what supports do you think the program would need to be successful?

Mason expressed hope that the meeting could generate ideas as to where school officials should focus their efforts.

“As the old adage says, it takes five minutes to lose a customer, and it takes five years to get them back,” he said.

During the small group meetings, parents and educators passed around ideas. One group discussed how incorporating more nutritional foods can go hand in hand with increased participation.

“There needs to be more of an education with healthier foods,” parent Becky Tharp said in regards to the role of food service. “Kids are more likely to eat the food if there is a connection to it.”

Tharp is an organizer, along with Nancy Ryan, Cindy O’Farrell and Esther Palmer, of It Takes a Village – Foundations of Change. The grassroots group was designed to spark community-wide conversations about nutrition and wellness.

Allen Brook School kindergarten teacher Diane DiGennaro, along with her group, agreed that nutrition should be a key role of the food service program.

“If you’re whole philosophy is nutrition and taking care of your body, then you need to see that in you’re school lunch program,” DiGennaro said.

District Principal Walter Nardelli believed students would become more interested in the program if the time waiting to get lunch was reduced. He brainstormed with DiGennaro’s group about what it might take to make the program more successful.

“Make the time it takes to get your food minimal,” he said. “That might involve multi-stations.”

It was nearly unanimous that in order for the program to succeed, it would need greater participation from students, and even teachers. Several ideas were tossed around in groups and in general discussion. Marketing the program to students with free taste testings and coupon incentives was one idea. Bringing on trained chefs to make the food taste better and more nutritious was another.

Abby Klein, a local parent and kindergarten teacher at South Burlington’s Rick Marcotte Central School, said that more choices could make students interested in getting lunch. Her school offers up to seven different choices including a salad bar and ready-made sandwiches, she said.

“It increases the number of kids buying lunch,” Klein, who is also running for the three-year term on the School Board, said. “Teachers also participate because the food is good. If my students see me getting salad from the salad bar, then they are sometimes more inclined to do that, as well.”

Klein said she takes lunch orders in the morning from that day’s menu and her student’s understand that they can’t switch their decision when lunchtime rolls around. The system cuts down on waste, she said.

Discussion also centered on forming more community connections with the lunch program and getting fresher foods by supporting local farms. Nancy Ryan, a member of It Takes A Village who also put together a comprehensive lunch program study for CSSU administrators and the School Board back in December, suggested working with the Vermont FEED program in discussing healthier alternatives.

“The earlier we start, the earlier we can make a transition,” she said.

The Vermont FEED program is a community-based organization that aims to raise awareness about healthy food and good nutrition, while fostering relationships between schools and local farms, according to its Web site.

 Williston Central School principal Jackie Parks said small changes were on the way for the program starting after the winter break. Beginning in March, there will be one menu for both schools and one lunch line for both students and teachers instead of the current separate lines, she said.

Mason said the meeting produced a great “breadth of information,” and he looks forward to where these discussions will lead.

“All of this will prove invaluable,” he said at the end of the meeting. “I don’t want the communications on this to stop.”

The next meeting regarding changes to the food service program will be held March 18 at Williston Central School.