Nutritional Services Concerns Compel Many to Speak Out

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Thursday February 28, 2013

Wednesday night’s school board meeting brought a number of individuals, including parents, people who work in South Burlington school cafeterias and kitchens, and Hunger Free Vermont staff, among others, to join the conversation on nutritional services. As many know, the District’s Nutritional Services Deficit incurred a cumulative deficit of $347,843 through June 30, 2012 with a projection of $468,054 at the end of this year. 

Assistant Superintendent Winton Goodrich spearheaded a process to look into what can be done to resolve the issue without compromising the District Ends. Goodrich gave a presentation on the work he and his teams have been doing. The action plan development process began in November 2012 and was completed in early February. Both the internal and external groups shared their data and created a collaborative list of findings and recommendations for consideration.  Two teams were created to study the issues, identify findings, and make recommendations. The internal group involved nutrition services staff, the external group was comprised of individuals with expertise in food service, business management, the non-profit sector, teachers with an interest in sustainability, as well as parents, the Farm to School Coordinator, and a student.

Through their research they identified a number of contributing factors to the deficit. One was that Federal regulations increased costs and lowered student meal participation. Another was that food cost increases outpaced meal price charges and a low federal reimbursement percentage compared to area districts has contributed to annual program deficits. Many more areas were identified for examination and change. One crucial piece they gleaned is that it is important to link the three C’s: cafeterias, curriculum, and community.

Steve Marinelli, Director of Food Services for the Milton school district has been working with the internal and external teams to devise strategies for getting South Burlington’s NS program in the black. He turned around the Milton program in a year and a half. While his presentation contained its fair share of numbers, he explained that success can be defined in myriad ways and figures don’t always reflect the intangibles. The Milton District stopped bringing in processed food and replaced it with “good food.” They looked at the whole picture, including staffing issues and made some difficult changes. This year, their NECAP scores were the best ever and part of that result has been directly attributed to the changes in the nutrition system. “Real success comes in what you provide to the students,” Marinelli said, “it takes partnerships, commitment”, and trust. You have to trust that it’s going to work.”

There was no disagreement among the public present or the Board on the importance of getting healthy calories into students, but a desire to explore all internal and external avenues was expressed. The Board agreed that further conversation (on agenda for March 20) and research prior to taking a definitive path was necessary.

Attendees implored the board to pursue the internal options. A representative from Hunger Free Vermont cautioned the Board from latching on to the most “rosy” anticipated revenue projection from the outside consultant. She said that often these numbers are inflated and don’t take into account hidden costs. She encouraged the board to talk with other districts that may have tried that option and later had “buyer’s remorse.” 

One parent, who said she had been involved in planting the first garden at Orchard School and introduced a class to brussel sprouts stressed that while food is important for physical health, the connections children make while on their backs in the dirt, checking plants for bugs is equally important. For the school board, she said, it’s about putting their money where their mouth is. 

Goodrich explained that it will be a paradigm shift. Small changes will become commonplace. Instead of thinking of doing a bake sale for a fundraiser, fun runs may become the go to. Educating families in congruence with what children are being taught in school will continue to be important, Common Roots Director Carol McQuillen said. “One example would be sending recipes home. It’s very doable.” 

A South Burlington high school senior asked all high school students in the room to stand up. Roughly ten were present. He explained that they were there in support of healthy foods and that this year a new class was offered on sustainable foods and that has made a huge difference in their way of thinking and living. There is evidence, already in South Burlington, that there has been success in providing a consistent message and there is strong support for this trend to continue. The challenge will be finding a way to make the most financially viable path congruous with the philosophy of the District.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent