Beefy baked ziti? No thanks, moms told the schools superintendent. We’ll send our kids with a packed lunch.
Cheese pizza? Now we’re talking, kids told cafeteria workers. We’ll give it a taste.
The parents voiced that complaint about school lunches that turned into a wide-ranging conversation about the district’s food policy at a recent morning coffee klatch with Superintendent Carol Birks, hosted by the Boys and Girls Club and ‘R Kids Inc. Close to two dozen people showed to hear from the superintendent about the changes underway in the district.
Throughout the back-and-forth with Birks, parents raised a grab bag of issues about their schools, including site-based budgets, parking-lot safety, bullying and even teacher dress codes.
But towards the end, one mom brought up her teenage daughter’s school lunches, and almost everyone in the room piled on. From schools around the district, they shared complaints about ingredient quality and dietary restrictions. Many said they’d resorted to making lunches for their kids.
In interviews, school district officials argued that it’s not feasible to put out a restaurant-like spread. Given the short window for service, the federal requirements for nutrition and the local concerns about allergies, they’re limited in how much they can cater to individual taste buds.
Still, officials added, they’re working hard to provide top-notch lunches that entice kids. On an ongoing basis, they provide more training for staff and conduct taste tests that lead to menu and production changes. Chefs are preparing more meals on-site, now including a very popular cheese pizza recipe in their regular rotation. And they’re competing with each other on the appearance of their trays.
“We do our best to run as a fine-oiled machine, to get kids a good healthy meal consistent with applicable standards and back to their schedule,” said Will Clark, the district’s chief operating officer. “We have taken many steps over the years to improve food quality and are very proud of those.”
A parent from Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School, Janet McCray, kicked off the discussion with Birks by saying that her daughter barely has time to chow down her lunch. She’s scheduled to go to the lunchroom during a split period, eating for about 30 minutes in between class, she said. But if there are any delays, her daughter might not be able to finish, she added.
“They go down during class and come back up. She’s explained that it’s not enough time and sometimes they don’t call her table or section in time. When they do, they’re eating bad food in a hurry,” McCray said. “Honestly, that’s not conducive for learning.”
That led multiple parents, including from Sound and Brennan-Rogers Schools, to complain that the lunches don’t seem appetizing. Almost everyone said they’d heard complaints about a beefy baked ziti that one mom said looked like “dog food” and “smells horrible.”
“My boys won’t touch it,” the parent said. “One day, I asked an administrator, ‘Do you eat the lunch?’ He said, ‘I eat it on Monday but I won’t eat it on Friday, because some of the stuff is repeated.’ They may not have enough time over there to eat, but they may not even want to eat.”
Another mom, who prepares meals for patients at Yale-New Haven Hospital, said that she knew from her job that a cafeteria meal doesn’t need to lack flavor. She said that chefs should be allowed to put their spin on a lunch, rather than just heating up what central kitchen sends over.
The cooks are adjusting their menu to what’s popular, and they are expanding training, said Gail Sharry, the district’s food service director. Increasingly, the schools are doing on-site cooking, she added.
In each lunchroom, at least once a week, cooks now make a pizza in their kitchen, rather than heating up a frozen ready-made. Some experiment with barbecue or ranch as a sauce and a variety of meats and veggies as toppings.
“That’s a big feat for them. They have to get the dough to rise, sauce it and cheese it,” Sharry said. “You can see the difference and taste the difference. They get such positive comments from kids. They feel empowered to make the best product.”
All vegetables are roasted and all pastas are baked on-site, too, she added.
But there are limits on what the the lunchrooms can do, especially given the multi-million-dollar deficit. “I have to remember my budget,” Sharry said. To prepare food safely on a short time frame, some items are easier to make in Central Kitchen, like red-skin potatoes that are mashed and sent out.
“That’s not unusual. It’s industry standard. Even at restaurants, there’s always a blend of pre-prepared items and cooking from scratch. The time factor, health and preservation of product are all issues we have to think about,” Clark said. “I don’t think people appreciate the volume of meals that are being produced. In a short window, we can’t complicate it with other prep, the slicing and dicing, and all the other factors of regulation and health compliance.”
Sharry added that all the meals are made fresh. The cafeterias might put out a tray of reheated leftovers, alongside the current day’s option to provide more choice for students, she said. Nothing will be out for more than a day, she said.
One mom from Mauro-Sheridan School wondered aloud about how the district balances nutritional requirements with taste, especially when it comes to beverages. As many parents point out during public comment at board meetings, the milk often goes to waste. She asked if the district would think about bringing back chocolate milk.
Several years ago, after seeing a study from the the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, the district decided to drop chocolate milk. With obesity on the rise, they felt they couldn’t justify the high sugar levels.
Officials are thinking about reinstituting the chocolate milk, because it might still be better than “a soda or something else the kids may bring in,” Clark said. Sharry is reaching out to producers to see if they might create a custom formula for the district with less sugar.
A parent from Troup School didn’t have a problem with the quality. She said that there are just not enough options for students who don’t eat meat. Aside from the fruit and salad on the side, the only vegetarian options for a main are often a cheese sandwich or a sunflower-butter-and-jelly sandwich, said Fabenne Rodriguez, a mother of two. Those are repeated almost daily, she said.
The schools do have salad bars to supplement. They also usually have bagels, yogurt, egg salad and tuna available, Sharry said. But other vegetarian items are tough to prepare because all of them must include a protein to qualify for a reimbursement from the federal government, she added.
Birks told the parents that she’d have to look into all of their concerns. She said that a Board of Education task force is making district-wide recommendations for how to improve the meals.
Board of Ed member Joe Rodriguez, the chair of that task force, said that they’ve been focused in recent weeks on making sure that schools are watching out for special dietary needs. The school system is supposed to be entirely free of nuts, shellfish and pork, but last year, a piece of candy handed out by a retired administrator landed a high-school student in the emergency room.
“You can’t just put forth an implementation plan and expect everyone to refer back to the five-page document,” Rodriguez said. “You have to continuously have this conversation to ensure that it’s at the forefront. We’re trying to change the culture.”
The task force next plans to start looking at best practices on nutritional value, quality and quantity of food. They might tour other school districts to take some tips, and they also want to include questions about lunches on an upcoming school climate survey to get more student input.