Bitter year has district reinventing lunch offerings

Meals to go? In this December 2012 photograph, a Voorheesville student buys lunch while the school transitions from a federal lunch program to a district-designed one. As part of an effort to revamp its lunch program the Voorheesville School District will soon offer after-school dinner for families and private catering services in September. 

From scratch: Voorheesville’s food-service director, Tim Mulligan, prepares food during the 2012-13 school year. The district abandoned a federal lunch program after reporting the loss of about $30,000 and created its own. The district is trying to lure back students by kicking off a new menu and expanded services at the start of this school year.

NEW SCOTLAND — Citing a $55,000 loss in revenues and a poorly received, now rejected, federal school lunch program, the Voorheesville school district is raising prices; promoting a new, more diverse menu; and offering after-school food services for the community at large.

Starting this month, the school will begin a program to make take-out orders for families. Plans are in the works for a catering service as well.

The Voorheesville Board of Education resisted calls from officials to raise the cost of all lunches by 50 cents in August and instead adopted an increase of 25 cents.

The board adopted a two-year approach to any proposed lunch increases, hoping the additional costs could be limited.

The board approved an increase of 25 cents for most lunches and a 10-cent increase for milk. With the new increases, elementary lunches cost $2.50 each; middle and high school lunches cost $3; breakfast cost $1.75 and each half-pint of milk is 50 cents.

Low-income students receiving free lunches are unaffected and those getting a reduced-price lunch, based on family income, will pay 10 cents more, raising the cost of a meal to 35 cents. That increase is five times smaller than the figure administrators first proposed, which would have increase the cost of a reduced-price from 25 to 75 cents.

The federal program the district dropped, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010 and began in September 2012.

Following guidelines for healthy eating, to stem the rising tide of childhood obesity, the federal program restricts the options and amounts of food that school districts can offer. Its provisions limit calories, protein, sodium, and other items while emphasizing nutritional foods such as fruit, vegetables, and whole wheat.

Parts of the program that caused problems in Voorheesville, and nationwide, involved limited portion sizes; one requirement, for example, limits protein intake for high school students to only about a slice of deli meat, as a protein requirement per meal.

Officials and parents complained the amounts were inadequate and the selections too inflexible. Some student athletes were leaving the school at the end of the day to go and get food at local eateries, before returning for sports practice.

According to exhaustive research complied by the American Dietary Association and the American College of Sports Medicine on nutrition and athletic performance, protein recommendations for endurance and strength-trained athletes range from 2.7 to 4.5 grams per pound of body weight per day.

That means, for example, a 200-pound athlete would require about a quarter-pound of protein during the day; so, in addition to the two ounces of protein in the school lunch, he would need another two ounces, at breakfast and again at dinner if he is at the high end of the range.

Another federal stipulation required students to buy fruit with lunch, even if they didn’t want it. School officials said many students immediately threw the fruit away before sitting down to eat.

In January, Voorheesville Superintendent Teresa Thayer Snyder said students were throwing away about 30 to 40 pounds of fresh produce every day. In addition to her remarks at the time, she showed the board three boxes of fruit, saying students had thrown it in the trash earlier that same day.

Losses mount

“We broke off from the federal lunch program, we were losing so much money,” said Thayer Snyder this week. “After February — after switching to our own program, we saw more of an upward trajectory but in no way did it make up for the losses last year.”

Voorheesville adopted its own health-focused school-lunch plan on Feb. 8, with the district reporting a revenue shortfall of $32,000, attributed in large part to a lack of sales. Voorheesville’s lunch program was already struggling to be profitable in the years before it adopted the federal mandate and officials continued to blame the well-intentioned program for a spike in the overall lack of interest in the school’s food, even after it abandoned the plan.

“It takes time to gain back customers,” said Thayer Snyder.

Under the new program, from February to the end of the school year in June, the district reported an additional loss of about $20,000; a total yearly shortfall of  $54,333, said Superintendent of Business Gregory Diefenbach, this week.

The district was forced to spend $60,000 from its general fund to keep the food program “afloat,” said Diefenbach. He said the district would like the general funds paid back with revenue from the food service program.

Despite the losses, officials are hoping the recent lunchroom shake-up will be an opportunity to reinvent the services, said Thayer Snyder.

Choices and changes

While the elementary school will continue to follow a stricter lunch plan, similar to the federal one, the middle and high school will see a number of changes.

“The federal program down at the elementary level had more success,” said Voorheesville’s food-service director, Tim Mulligan. “The younger ages, you can ask them to try it and they will. You can’t tell an 18-year-old high school student what to eat. I’m not sure if I would anyways; they’re adults.”

After leaving the federal program; Thayer Snyder said, students were actually eating more fruit and other healthy foods.

“The kids are more likely to take it as a choice than when you’re forcing it on them,” she said.

Thayer Snyder and Mulligan agreed the federal program had commendable goals, of promoting a healthy, balanced diet and that Voorheesville’s lunch program shared the same goals but without the need to follow restrictive federal mandates. Both questioned the idea of combating the broad social issues of obesity and health by regulating school food, noting that, even if a student ate every available meal at school, the school meals would only account for about 18 percent of their yearly diet.

“That’s a small window for a lot of change,” said Thayer Snyder.

High and middle school students will have access to the Blackbird Café, which offers premium meals for $4.50 a few times a week. Examples of the café meals include chicken Parmesan sandwich with dumpling soup a Monte Cristo sandwich with beef vegetable soup; and a French dip sandwich, shrimp, and corn chowder.

“We’re calling it the Blackbird Café to give it a distinct personality, it really is like a restaurant,” said Thayer Snyder.

Regular school lunches often include a main meal but many side items can be chosen from a daily selection. An example meal might include; baked ziti, tossed salad, steamed green beans, Italian bread, fruit, and milk.

Students will always have a selection of daily sides that include fresh fruit, tossed salad, chef salad, Caesar salad, and deli sandwiches.

The school will continue to offer individual food items to be purchased at its a la carte tray, selling things like bagels and yogurt separately. 

The district will expand its service to include an after-school menu from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The cafeteria will keep a staff member available after hours to offer students a variety of already-prepared food, such as fruit, wrapped sandwiches, soups, and salads.

Also, parents’ picking up kids from school could also pick up dinner.

Starting this month the school will also begin a program of making take-out orders for families. Mulligan said the school would prepare a dinner for a family of four for less than $25. The school has not yet launched the program but intends to in the first weeks of school.

“One might be a dinner of chicken broccoli Alfredo, or steak salad, with some sides, like bread sticks,” said Mulligan.

“Instead of running through the McDonald’s drive through or something like that, Mom and Dad can get a quick, healthier meal here,” said Thayer Snyder.

She noted the district made an effort to buy seasonal, locally grown produce and natural foods during the year, in addition to the food service raising its own garden.

 In the near future, the district will also offer a catering service, which Thayer Snyder said could at least host school events, instead of staff or students hiring a private company.

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