BY TOM FRENCH
Your recent article on school lunch was timely and informative. However it points to a number of misperceptions and factual mistakes both by the public and the school district which are reflected in the article. As a professional chef and director of Experience Food Project I have had the privilege of working in this field for over 12 years and as an organization we have a portfolio of successful case studies, pilot projects, data and positive outcomes in school districts to support my comments.
As a member of the White House Chefs Move to Schools Outreach Committee and the School Nutrition Association Chefs Table, I am in daily contact with others who are making positive changes across the U.S. in school meal programs.
First it is important to note that school lunch is currently undergoing the most extensive scrutiny the program has experienced for the past three decades. Until now most communities and districts have accepted the status quo with low level grumblings and some humor about school food. Those days are over and a literal culture change is coming as families and communities place more value and emphasis on health, vitality and community based economics. School food service personnel have consistently followed the guidelines and recommendations from USDA and should be commended for their hard work and commitment.
But let’s clear up a few of the misperceptions.
Chartwells: I have found the individuals who work for this company at the district level to be very pleasant and I have had a number of discussions with their corporate chef. But the truth is they are a subsidiary of a for-profit international food service company and their primary goal is profit, which by the way they achieved quite handsomely over the past several years. This is partially accomplished by a set of menus that are vertically integrated with distribution and manufacturing for which they receive significant rebates.
To be fair, there are instances where districts have bargained for those in their contract. But at the end of the day they are not in the business of losing money and much of their revenues are derived from daily servings of poor quality pizza and other questionable choices. While the district may lose money through this arrangement, Chartwells does not. Simply put the margins for operation are so slim already that squeezing profit from these margins relies on serving foods that come from the low end of the purchasing spectrum.
Local foods; The truth is thousands of pounds of Washington, Oregon and Idaho grown produce are already in the distribution system by default but that is rarely recognized. That being said the movement toward a more defined “local” identity is certainly a popular notion but one that requires a certain amount of diligence for compliance purposes. It can however be done and we have a number of capacity building efforts underway with local farmers in several school districts. This community certainly meets the value and commitment standard for reaching that goal.
Costs: The district does not lose money because of the number of free and reduced meals it provides. Districts are reimbursed by federal and state tax dollars at a rate of $2.86 for free meals provided, $2.46 for reduced price meals and 27 cents for every meal sold at full price. Additionally they receive reimbursement for breakfast and snacks. While these are less than ideal amounts it can be done.
One of the ways districts achieve fiscal viability is to increase participation. While SWSD registers a 30 percent free and reduced population that leaves another 70 percent of students who do not utilize the meal program at full price. In order to reach those students, and don’t forget the district also employs a significant number of adults who are potential customers, meal programs must achieve one simple goal; the food has to look, taste and smell good. To reach those students and families the district must demonstrate a willingness to embrace a set of values that include more contemporary healthy options, greater use of locally grown foods and an effort regain control of our food program. Otherwise the board and administration are “out to lunch” on this issue.
But this all points to a broader issue. South Whidbey is home to world class everything; writers, producers, actors, musicians, scientists, lecturers, botanists, business consultants, culinary professionals … the list goes on and on. The district administration and more importantly the school board has failed consistently to engage this community in the manner we want to be engaged. There is story after story of individuals who want to be involved in living up to our motto of world class education in the SWSD, but simply fade away in frustration.
Schools systems are failing on many levels which should tell us that we need a new approach. I personally have a hard time supporting bonds and levies until I am convinced that the district is better utilizing existing resources within our community. We can, should and need to do a better job of educating, feeding and nourishing our community.
Tom French is a certified instructor for ServSafe, a national education program.