BLOG — Students vet the culinary industrial complex
- Published: February 11, 2011
School food may be wanting, but it is astonishing to think that anyone could come up with a meal plan to feed a bunch of hungry kids with picky tastes for under two bucks fifty a meal. For that amount I can barely afford a cheese stick and an Honest Tea, which will keep me satiated for exactly one hour. These kids need fuel for the rest of their brainiac day!
To understand the school meal plan, you must start with a hugely complex budget and government nutrition regulations. Here’s what it looks like at on the first pass.
The school contracts with the global company Sodexo, whose local manager Shari Jones is the nicest, most helpful person I could imagine to run the Yellow Springs show. Shari works with Sodexo’s corporate meal planners and the district treasurer to come up with a meal plan that fits within the district’s $214,000 (2009–10) food budget. The budget is based on how many students on average eat the breakfast and lunch meals that are offered at different times at the district’s three schools, Mills Lawn, McKinney and Yellow Springs High School. The formula accounts for the number of students in the district who are eligible for the free and reduced meal plans, as well as the hugely reduced government food stuffs and USDA nutrition regulations that come with those free and reduced students.
At Mills Lawn, out of a total 386 students, an average of 45 kids buy breakfast each day, while the average daily lunch crowd is 170 kids strong. At the high school, out of a total 225 students, 25–30 students come for breakfast, while for lunch the cafeteria serves an average 120 students. District-wide, about 25 percent of the student population is eligible for the free and reduced meals.
To keep costs down, Shari first tries to fit the government commodities into Sodexo’s menu plans and ration them to last. For instance, the school can buy a 60-pound case of diced peaches for $2.50 from the government, which on the market would have cost $45, Shari said. Commodities includes dry and canned goods and bulk proteins, such as shredded chicken meat, canned fruit and egg patties. Thanks to Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to improve children’s healthy habits, commodities have gotten healthier, and now include items such as whole grain spaghetti and brown rice, she said.
For products such as most of the meat and cheese, Sodexo contracts with manufacturers to make bulk purchases for all of its customers in the Eastern Division, which includes over 1,000 schools, colleges and corporate cafeterias. This year the company contracted with Koch for its chicken, for instance, and Reiter for all of its dairy products.
“We can opt to buy a certain number of cases at a discounted rate, which makes our buying power pretty strong,” Shari said.
All the produce Sodexo gets from a regional vendor called Produce One, a Dayton-based commercial distributor that buys from a supplier called Pro*Act, which streamlines the produce supply chain by contracting with growers and shippers across the continent. They get products through labels such as Dole, FOXY and Earthbound Organics, which Produce One uses to serve schools, hospitals, arenas and hotels across Ohio, Kentucky and parts of Indiana.
Here’s one warm and fuzzy: because Dayton’s Fulton Farms meets the agriculture safety standards for Produce One, Yellow Springs students are able to get somewhat local apples for school lunches.
Sodexo also manufactures many of its foods exclusively, such as the pizzas. And the rest of the products needed for the school meals, Sheri gets through Gordon Food Service, a distributor similar to Produce One, which Tom’s Market has used in the past for its dry goods.
This is a big operation executed by a well-oiled giant of the food service industry. I’m still interested in the ingredients for these foods, as well as the nutrition information for, say, those chicken fingers I tried last month. More to come next time on the hunt to the bottom of the school lunch.