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South End school board chews over costly meals program

South Whidbey High School Assistant Principal Scott Mauk presents a Nutrition Committee update to the South Whidbey School Board.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
South Whidbey High School Assistant Principal Scott Mauk presents a Nutrition Committee update to the South Whidbey School Board.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

LANGLEY — There’s no such thing as a free meal.

The South Whidbey School District faced that reality at its recent school board meeting. The schools are supplied food and meals by Chartwells, a company that specializes in food services. Labor, however, is fronted by the school district, and Superintendent Jo Moccia said those costs are cutting into the food program’s ability to make ends meet.

“We’re way above average in our expense per meal, not because of Chartwells’ costs, but because of our employment costs,” Moccia said.

“The difficulty truly is the cost of doing business. It’s not that we are overstaffed, it’s that we’re veteran staffed.”

With national youth obesity rates for school-age kids rising, the nutritional value of what they eat during school lunch has been criticized. Youths from 6 to 18 years old in Washington face an obesity “epidemic,” according to the Washington State Department of Health.

Across the state and in the South Whidbey School District, the focus has been removing and limiting access to junk food like pop, potato chips and fries. Soda machines are long gone, replaced with bottled water and sports drinks. Instead of a pile of french fries with a burger, South Whidbey High School serves fajitas.

“With Chartwells, they tried to balance the nutritious foods with the competitive foods,” said South Whidbey High School Assistant Principal Scott Mauk.

“There’s been progress on the fresh food front. There’s an array of fresh foods available at every meal, whether it’s salads or fresh cut fruits.”

Mauk was tasked with defining and reviewing the district’s nutrition policies and practices. Part of the difficulty was accountability. The last school district nutrition report he found was from 2008. Mauk found the Student Advisory Committee never met this year and the Nutrition Committee needs to meet more often to examine which ideas, meals and lunch times work, and which may be a little raw.

“We need to figure out what are people’s perceptions of nutrition and food service,” Mauk said.

Board members questioned the effect the length of lunch periods has on students. Bruce Kinney, the Chartwells representative, said the more time students have to eat, the better. With a limited workforce and lunch periods being reduced or combined, like at Langley Middle School next year, food needs to be readily distributed to keep cafeteria lines moving. One of the limitations has been the district’s move toward “from-scratch” cooking rather than bulk and ready-to-eat meals made from government subsidized commodities, or “airline food,” as Board Member Linda Racicot called it.

“People want to see a lot more scratch cooking than government commodities,” Kinney said. “We are doing a fair amount of the commodity product.”

Moccia argued for a balance between nutrition, cost and efficiency.

“Kids don’t want to stand in line and wait to eat,” she said.

For food services alone, which is the food itself and not the labor and benefits, the school district budgeted for $271,838 next school year. South Whidbey schools saw their number of students on free and reduced lunches increase. In the past, that benefited the school district with grants and added state funding. Those dollars are mostly gone now, while costs increase.

“If we have someone on free lunch, we are losing money now, and that used to be a money maker,” Moccia said.

There are other ways the school district may consider saving money. A single prep kitchen was briefly discussed at the meeting, as was reducing food waste to save on garbage costs. A novel idea was proposed by Board Member Fred O’Neal. He suggested adopting a point program like Good Cheer Food Bank which rewards healthful foods over processed foods. Rather than convert to the point program, O’Neal said the schools would alter the price of food such as vegetables, salads and fruits and increase the cost of low-nutrition foods.

 

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