Heller takes the helm of food services at GCSD, navigating many challenges

— Still frame from Sept. 13, 2022 Guilderland School Board meeting

“I’m learning as I’m going with your district,” said Guilderland’s new food-services director, Renée Heller.

GUILDERLAND — The school district here has a new food-services director who is facing ongoing challenges of supply-chain issues as well as taking on new challenges.

Renée Heller was hired over the summer and is “doing a great job,” Superintendent Marie Wiles told The Enterprise this week.

She replaces Megan Beck who left Guilderland for a job with the Capital Region Board of Educational Services.

Since it’s such a specialized position, there were not many applicants, Wiles said. “We only need one good one,” she stressed.

Heller had been the food-services director at Schalmont, which has about 1,800 students in three schools. Guilderland has about 4,800 students in seven schools.

“She didn’t miss a beat,” said Wiles of Heller taking over at Guilderland.

In August, the school board had discussed supply-chain issues for food that had caused some shortages. “We can’t always get the actual food products we need or ordered,” Wiles said this week. “We’ve been trying to trade and swap with other districts.”

During the pandemic, for the last two-and-a-half years, the federal government paid for all students to eat for free. The Free Meals For All waiver expired in June.

Now, the federal government is returning to its original program of families applying for reduced-price or free meals, based on income. For a family of four, the income limit this year is $51,338; for each additional family member, $4,720 is added.

Free- and reduced-price meal applications may be completed online through the district’s website and are also available in every school office.

As of Sept. 9, Guilderland had 1,115 students — 21 percent of the student body — approved for free meals, the district reported; this number is expected to increase as families are made aware of charges on their child’s meal account.

Parents will receive an email or a letter home when their student has a balance greater than $10. With this notification will be information on how to apply for free meals. The first three days of school, the charge balance was over $660.

Guilderland does not penalize students for overdue balances. Heller told the school board at its Sept. 13 meeting she had heard from “a parent concerned she did not have the money and her child would not be eating.”

Regardless of whether or not a child has money in an account, Heller said, a child would be provided with food.

The district provides breakfast and lunch daily.

In August, the school board approved prices of $1.95 for breakfast at the five elementary schools and $3 for lunch. At the middle school and high school, breakfast costs $2.50 and lunch costs $3.25.

Heller told the board that Guilderland participates in the national school-meal program to be reimbursed if certain guidelines are met on daily calories, whole grains, and vegetable groups.

Meeting the state menu requirements for allergies can be a challenge, Heller said.

She also said, “Guilderland has over 60 different cultures.”

Several school board members said they would like to see the district meet the dietary needs of, for example, Jewish students who keep kosher or Muslim students who follow dietary laws specifying which foods are halal, or lawful, and which are haram, or unlawful.

Guilderland participates in a BOCES bid process and, said Heller, “There are no kosher or halal items even on that bid, not that we can’t procure it.”

She also said that she meets with other local school food-services directors once a month and that is on the agenda.

“It’s unfamiliar to us,” Heller said. “We want to be respectful. We need them to purchase our meals. We’re all by ourselves as a program. To have those,” she said of specialized foods, “and still work within the guidelines is a challenge.”

Wiles told The Enterprise of the district supplying foods to meet cultural or religious needs, “We’ll certainly do our homework to look into it.” But she also said, “It’s more complicated than it appears.”

Heller noted, “Parents also have the option of saying they don’t want their child to purchase certain things or eat certain things. We have several that specify no snacks,  no pork, go gelatin.”

In the first three days of school this year, 3,735 lunch meals were served and new menu items were added. With the federal free-meal waiver over, participation for the opening of school was lower, as expected, Heller said.

She added that she is “kind of proud” that, in the first five days of school, 7,600 meals were served. “That’s pretty good and I think it will continue to grow,” she said.

The elementary schools now offer chef salads and assorted sandwiches.

“We started a humus cup,” said Heller.

At the high school, a bowl bar offers black beans, rice, corn chips, beef, chicken, tuna and fresh vegetables. “The high school loves this,” said Heller. “They can pick and choose.”

The district also offers many snacks, she said, adding, “These are smart-snack compliant.”

The smart snacks include whole-grain cookies, Rice-Krispie treats, reduced-fat baked chips, pretzels, reduced-fat ice cream, and fruit snacks, said Heller.

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