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Criticism of South Whidbey schools' meal program continues

LANGLEY — Some South Whidbey parents are fed up with the meals being served to their kids at school, which they say are unhealthy and unappealing.

District officials aren’t counting calories, however. Instead, they’re focused on the continuing drop in revenues from its food-service program.

District business manager Dan Poolman has asked the school board to start looking for a new company that could replace Chartwells, the firm that provides meals in school cafeterias.

Following several years of declining revenue — a $185,000 deficit in 2008-09 alone — the district hired Chartwells to take over meal service at all South Whidbey public schools last August.

“They haven’t met our financial expectations,” Poolman told board members at their workshop on Wednesday.

“Overall, we’re not unhappy with Chartwells, but from a purely business standpoint it makes sense to see if there’s another company that can do the job while getting the deficit down,” he said.

The school district will lose almost $115,000 this year in the food-service program, continuing a six-year downward trend.

The problem is directly related to the economy.

Poolman said the number of “families buying and paying for lunches has gone down.

“The number of free and reduced meals partially subsidized by state and federal funds has shot up,” he added.

This year, the number of children using the free-meal program increased 40 percent. Meanwhile, the number of students buying their meals has dropped from 21 percent in 2006 to 12 percent this year.

Adding to the problem are increased concerns by parents over the quality of the food that Chartwells offers.

Elementary school PTA president Kris McRea said the company has been getting negative feedback from parents all year.

“Parents are frustrated by the quality of the food served and the way the kids are managed at lunch time,” McRea said. “Those who depend on vegetarian or gluten-free diets are pretty much on their own.”

“Going out for a competitive bid will provide, at the least, a form of incentive for Chartwells to develop a plan to improve its current food service,” she said.

McRea and others want to see more emphasis on buying from local farms, both to guarantee product freshness and as a way to help the Whidbey Island economy.

First-grade teacher and parent Susan Milan wanted the board to consider the advantages of sustainable farming and its impact on good nutrition.

“There’s a lot we can do, asparents and teachers, to promote healthier attitudes,” she said. “Getting the kids themselves more involved in the preparation, cooking and presentation of the food they eat would help a lot.”

A survey of parents organized by McRea included comments that reflected poorly on Chartwells.

“All I can say is that my kids will not eat school lunches. They think that it is disgusting in looks and taste,” said one parent.

Roughly 35 percent of high school students said they didn’t find the food served at lunch appealing in a March survey of nearly

250 students, according to Chartwells. Approximately 11.7 percent of those polled said the cost of lunch was too much.

In the survey, nearly 61 percent rated the taste of the food from “average” to “excellent,” and 13 percent said they would want healthier options if the food program were changed.

At Wednesday’s meeting, officials from Chartwells said the company has been working to improve its food service, but noted there have been hurdles to clear since Chartwells took over the food program less than a year ago.

Chartwells district manager Kevin Nelson said the company had instituted a series of improvements, including packing much more fruits and vegetables into its salad bars, adding whole-grain ingredients in pizzas and breads, and removing trans fats, as well as other changes.

The increased volume of kids using the elementary school lunchroom has also posed problems.

“With the change in lunch periods at the elementary school from four to two, we’ve had difficulties getting the kids through the lines in a timely fashion,” he said. “Also, since we took over shortly before school opened in September, it took time for us to get our operation up to speed.”

Nelson added that his company was starting pilot programs in other states to generate interest in buying local, but noted that cost and liability issues had to be considered.

“If you want us to do something different, we will,” Nelson added. “We don’t have a cookie-cutter program.”

Board Chairwoman Leigh Anderson was sympathetic to parents’ concerns, but noted that the board has no legal obligation to provide food service.

“I feel we are beating our heads against the wall when it comes to finding the right balance between cost and nutrition,” she said.

Though the board made no decision on Poolman’s request to find other companies that could provide meals in the district’s cafeterias, the board agreed to discuss a proposal for an assessment of the food service program by Tom French, director of the Experience Food Project.

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