Food For Thought

A new healthier federal lunch program is being met with mixed results from students in area school districts.

Amid isolated reports of New York schools cutting ties with the $11 billion National School Lunch program, which reimburses schools for meals served and gives them access to lower-priced food, Chautauqua County schools have experienced a wide range of reactions to the program and its food items.

The largest opposition to the program came from Chautauqua Lake Central School, where it was recently reported that the majority of food items provided to students ended up in trash bins rather than stomachs. According to Bob Reynolds, a member of the district’s maintenance staff, the food items being thrown away were largely unconsumed and, in some cases, untouched.

“It’s ridiculous how much winds up in garbage bags, especially fruit like apples and bananas,” Reynolds said in a previous interview, adding that some of the discarded food items had only a single bite taken out of them.

Additionally, the district’s efforts at composting have proven equally fruitless, with Reynolds reporting that the bins intended for edible waste are being ignored by students.

“They just throw everything in the garbage,” he said.

Reynolds comments were provided on the heels of a board-approved resolution to increase the price of school meals at a recent Board of Education meeting. For the 2013-14 school year, lunch will be provided at a cost of $2 for pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, $2.25 for seventh- through 12th-graders and $4.25 for adults.

According to Ben Spitzer, Chautauqua Lake superintendent, the increases were recommended by the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which set new nutrition standards for the districts last September. Spitzer said, despite the price increase, the district has still managed to undercut the average lunch price of $2.46 as recommended by the legislation.

Some school districts have seen moderate opposition to the program from the student body, but are finding it difficult to turn away from the reimbursement rates it offers.

In the Sherman Central School district, superintendent Kaine Kelly reported small pockets of resistance in terms of backlash and a minor increase in excess waste. Kelly said the biggest thing to consider in Sherman’s decision on whether to stick with the program is the cost associated with serving school meals.

“The new standards have made it so providing lunches is more expensive,” Kelly said. “There’s a 6-cent reimbursement that comes from getting those menus approved by the federal government. So we wanted to get that as soon as possible because we need as much money as we can get.

“We haven’t seen any large backlash as a result, but it’s kind of changed the kids’ impressions of our school lunch; and I’m sure we’ve seen a bit of an increase in school waste,” continued Kelly.

Although the district is not currently anticipating severing itself from the program, Kelly said the reimbursement feature continues to be an enticing factor in the continuation of its participation.

“That 6-cent reimbursement is money that we didn’t have. So, in being fiscally responsible, it’s tough to turn away from that opportunity,” he said.

Chuck Leichner, superintendent of Forestville Central School, said he was optimistic about the future of the program at Forestville, saying he expects it to improve with time.

“I think as time moves on, we’re going to see schools have greater options and choices in terms of what they can purchase, and that will help solve the problem. It’s taking a little time in the market, in terms of companies that provide those items to schools, to keep up with (supplying) food that meets the regulations (of the legislation),” Leichner said.

In an attempt to increase student receptivity to the program, Leichner said members of Forestville’s lunch and cafeteria staff have been working on ideas for creative food options while still meeting within the federal healthy food regulations.

During the 2012-13 school year, the Jamestown Public Schools district experienced an upswing in the amount of meals served to many of its elementary and middle school students. As participants of the state- and federally funded Universal Free Meal program, students already receiving free and reduced meals became eligible to receive breakfast and lunch at no charge.

According to Walt Gaczewski, JPS director of food services, the district’s participating schools in last year’s program contributed to a 20 percent increase in breakfasts served and a 9 percent increase in lunches served.

In addition to increasing its number of served meals, and subsequent reimbursements, Gaczewski said the district has experienced little to no student opposition to its food options. He said this can be attributed to the variety of options.

“We don’t see much (excess) being thrown out,” Gaczewski said. “If there’s more of a selection, the students are more apt to take something that they’re going to eat, rather than throwing it out.”

Gaczewski said JPS has also instituted what are known as “sharing tables,” upon which students can place unwanted food items for others to take through public domain.

“We’re trying to reduce the amount of waste because nobody wants to see fruits and vegetables being thrown out,” he said.