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Better food for village schools?

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On Aug. 5 school board members voted for the first major change to the school lunch program since 1994. The board unanimously chose Sodexo, one of the largest multinational food service providers, over Child Nutrition Services, which had been providing the service.

Parents in attendance urged the board to try the new vendor, but also asked pointed questions of Sodexo, making statements in support of whole foods, fresh foods, and innovative food programs such as locally grown, organic options and food in the curriculum.

Prior to the board meeting, two Sodexo school lunch service managers presented a spread of “fresh wraps,” fruit and a lemonade flavored drink for community members to experience. The wraps consisted of a deli meat, shredded cheese and tomato wrapped in a flour tortilla.

According to the Sodexo managers, the wraps and fruits are representative of the kind of fresh options they intend to provide Yellow Springs students. While the portions would be somewhat smaller in the elementary grades than those offered at the meeting, Sodexo stated it will provide prepared fresh fruit three days a week throughout the school year. Other fruit, such as bananas and apples, would always be available. Students will be able to “build their own lunch,” with vegetarian options available, according to Sodexo area General Manager Sherry Jones.

“We eat with our eyes, and so do kids,” Jones said. “Show them good food and they will eat it.”

Asked if Sodexo has any policies to encourage the use of organic foods, Jones said that the company does have an initiative that can be “looked into.” She added that she is familiar with a district that is using foods grown on site.

Whole foods versus those that are heavily processed was a major point of concern for parents, and Jones explained that many of the processed foods, like chicken patties, are commodities from the federal government which come directly to the district. The district is still planning on using these products, because without them, the cost of school lunches would be much higher, according to Jones.

Whole grain pastas are one simple way to increase the health quotient of cafeteria foods, according to parent Amanda Banaszak. Many of the pastas also come from the federal government, according to Jones, who said that recently a whole grain option has been made available.

Parents Donna Haller and Tammy Wilson raised concerns about the amount of time it takes for students to get through the lunch line, stating that the buying process takes a large chunk out of an already short lunch period. Wilson added that options might cause further difficulties when some children can’t decide quickly.

“There is only one person behind the line, and we would like to change that,” Jones said, suggesting that more lunch staff would help shuffle students through the lunch line faster.

Sodexo’s contract stipulates that the food service provider is to convene a focus group of students, parents and staff in each building. In addition, Jones said the internal quality control of the corporation allows the district an opportunity to rate how the provider is doing by providing direct feedback to managers.

According to information presented at past board meetings, the district needs to increase its participation rate of students purchasing the lunches to avoid running the program deeply in the red. Currently, about 30 percent of local students buy lunch, compared to about 70 percent in other districts, according to an informal survey by District Treasurer Joy Kitzmiller.

“We are definitely running in the red the first year,” Kitzmiller said, noting that this deficit is a certainty because the payments coming into the district for the free and reduced price lunches are based on the participation rate from the year before, which in this case was extremely low. The final estimate, according to Kitzmiller, suggests the district could lose between $12,000 and $40,000 in the first year, depending upon how many parents decide to have their children purchase lunches in the cafeteria.

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