Feeding students is a complex recipe of tasks

GERMANTOWN—Sustaining the school’s buildings and the students within them were topics a meeting of the Germantown Central School District Board of Education early last month. And at the request of the board, Beth Kelley, food service manager, made a presentation that explained some of the complexities involved hungry students five days a week.

The federal Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 is in full effect this year, the same year that the district returned to providing breakfast and lunch for its students in house, rather than contracting it out. This left Ms. Kelley, who described herself as a working manager, and her staff of four “struggling and scrambling,” she said, “attending conferences and meetings” to learn the new regulations and how to comply with them.

 

The school day begins with the staff serving “a beautiful breakfast to the kids,” she said, and breakfast participation has increased this year over last. “They don’t always want to talk to us, but we try to make it a happy time.”

Lunch in the Germantown school, she said, is going through the same problems every district has. “The USDA passed the [Healthy Kids] act without checking with districts. They asked us to do things that were almost impossible, but we responded.”

In sum, the Healthy Kids Act is a “totally new way of looking at school lunch,” she said. For example, the menu for grades k to 8 requires five cups of vegetables and five cups of fruit each week. Only nine ounces of grains are allowed, so by Friday no sandwiches are served.

In order to be reimbursed for lunches, districts must follow the guidelines. One result is unhappy students and a lot of waste. “On any given day, you will see vegetables and fruits in the garbage,” said Ms. Kelley. She tries to avoid this by serving what she knows the students will eat—corn, applesauce, fresh local apples, broccoli, tossed salad. She sneaks spinach and beans into the tossed salad.

“Our suppliers weren’t prepared” for the change either, she said. Chicken patties have too much grain. Next year, breakfast will be included in the nutrition counts.

The USDA increased its reimbursement this year for free lunches served, to $2.95 per lunch. Reimbursements did not go up for reduced-price or paid lunches, $2.46 and 27 cents, respectively, so Germantown charges more for lunches, $2.25 this year, up from $1.50 last year, to cover the costs of the new ingredients.

As a result, “we’re now were down a lot of lunches,” said Ms. Kelley. “The little kids pay $1.75, and they’re told to buy lunch.” But of 109 students in grades 7 through 9, only 45 a day are getting lunch, and of 110 students in grades 10 to 12, “we’re feeding only 44 a day. We’re gaining more money per lunch but struggling to maintain the level we were at because volume is reduced.”

The staff keeps costs down by doing batch cooking and not offering a lot of alternatives. They bid on food and supplies through Questar III BOCES, along with the Hudson and Taconic Hills school districts, getting a better price on larger amounts. In the fall the school can get some fresh vegetables, but school is not in session during the height of the growing season.

The maximum number of calories for the high school lunch is 600-700, which board members seemed to find low. Students who are still hungry can purchase a second meal for the same price—not free or reduced—but the school does not get reimbursed for the second lunch.

The Germantown food service program was recently certified by the state, resulting in an additional six cents per student, and it passed a county health department inspection with flying colors. “We all enjoy what we do,” said Ms. Kelley.

Interim superintendent Patrick Gabriel prefaced a question by staying that he thinks school lunches are “a good thing,” and he complimented the food service staff on their “focused operation.” But, he noted, other districts are opting out of the federal program, and he wondered if Germantown “would arrive at that point,” and what Ms. Kelley thought about that.

Germantown now serves 33% of its lunches through the free lunch program, said Ms. Kelley. “I don’t feel that we could opt out. We depend too much on the reimbursement, plus $13,000 worth of [government] food each year.”

The Niskayuna district, in Schenectady County, opted out, she said, “but they don’t serve a lot of free and reduced lunches. They can say, ‘We’re not going to abide by your laws, we can fry the fries and charge $3.50 [per lunch].’ That’s back pedaling from what we’re trying to do,” she said, and in the meantime, districts like Germantown, Hudson and Newburgh, can’t afford to opt out of the federal lunch program.

The food service program came up again during the facilities discussion. The kitchen and “servery” are tiny, said Mr. Gabriel. There is no space for a dishwasher, resulting in the daily use of disposables for food service. Drawings exist for relocating the cafeteria to large space at the far end of the building, where the music room is. This would allow for renovation of the auditorium and relocation of music practice rooms.

These improvements seemed relatively low, however, on a list of 16 possible projects drawn up by the Facilities Committee. “The physical plant is a huge asset,” said Mr. Gabriel, but “it’s hard to do major repairs without borrowing.” A timeline for a capital project is three to four years, from start to finish, he said, including a year and a half to two years for planning. Starting this fall with careful planning, the district wouldn’t incur a cost until after the current debt is retired, he said. The district now pays about $800,000 per year for an addition put onto the school.

Head custodian Jim Palmieri was in the audience, and when asked to list priorities among the 16 items, he named two: the reduction an old, deteriorating chimney, and replacement of a “dinosaur” of a water holding tank. If the tank goes down, the school could be closed for days. Four smaller tanks could spell each other if one went down.

Other projects included replacing the leaking roof on the science wing, renovation of an “eyesore” of a garage and connecting to the sewer system on Route 9G. In addition, Mr. Gabriel had an estimate of $87,000 for security cameras inside and outside the building, 15% of which could be covered by a state grant.

The Facilities Committee will meet again before the May 8 board meeting and will get numbers for the priority projects for discussion at that meeting.

 

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