‘Tastings’ encourage input in TPS lunch menusWritten by John P. McCartney | | firstname.lastname@example.org
In an attempt to give students and parents input in the decision-making process of menu planning as well as increase student use of Toledo Public Schools’ (TPS) food services, the district will host “tastings” at 10 schools the weeks of May 6-10 and 13-17.
James Gant, chief business manager, explained the purpose and structure of the planned tastings and sought input from members of the Food Service Ad Hoc Committee on April 18.
Tastings will be 30-minute events at seven elementary and three high schools. Students and parents who participate will taste five to eight food items the district is considering adding to next year’s lunch menus, said Reynald Debroas, director of TPS Department of Food Services.
Each tasting will be the same, Debroas said. Participants at all the elementary schools will taste the same food items. Participants at each high school will taste the same food items although those items will differ from those tasted at the elementary schools.
Participants will vote on each item they taste. If Debroas places six food items on the tasting menu with the intention of adding three items to next year’s district menu, the top three vote-getting items will win, said Patty Mazur, TPS communications director.
The tastings will cost TPS nothing, Mazur said. The event will be vendor-financed, and Mazur said the district expects that five to eight potential vendors will participate.
The idea for this year’s tasting events grew out of one tasting at DeVeaux Elementary School last year at which DeVeaux and Whittier Elementary School students and parents tasted and voted on food items for this year’s breakfast menu, Mazur said.
The seven elementary school tastings will take place:
- May 6 — Larchmont, 1515 Slater St., 43612
- May 7 — Beverly, 3548 S. Detroit Ave., 43614
- May 8 — Garfield, 1103 Ravine Pkwy., 43605
- May 9 — Hawkins, 5550 W. Bancroft St., 43615
- May 10 — Navarre, 800 Kingston Ave., 43605
- May 13 — Elmhurst, 4530 Elmhurst Drive, 43613
- May 14 — Whittier, 4221 Walker Ave., 43612
The three high schools tastings will take place:
- May 15 — Bowsher, 2200 Arlington Ave., 43614
- May 16 — Start, 2010 Tremainsville Road, 43613
- May 17 — Woodward, 701 E. Central Ave., 43608
In other business, Gant informed committee members that TPS Board of Education (BOE) member Larry Sykes accepted the 2012 School Breakfast Program of the Year Award from Children’s Hunger Alliance (CHA) on Feb. 18. TPS was honored as Ohio’s top school district for its partnership with CHA, Action for Healthy Kids and the American Dairy Association Mideast in sponsoring its first school breakfast program.
CHA reported that in September the district began offering hot breakfasts at least three days a week in all K-8 school buildings as well as adding additional fresh fruits and whole grains to the breakfast menus. In that same month, CHA reported that more than 8,500 children in the district ate breakfast at school as compared to 4,790 six months earlier, and that about 40 percent of all K-8 students eat breakfast on average each day in TPS.
The breakfast program is financed with federal funds, Gant said, and because of low food and labor costs, the district makes about 25 cents per meal served.
Sykes said he is a strong supporter of the breakfast program because of the strong correlation he sees between feeding students and improved student performance.
Sykes, who attended the National School Board Association conference in San Diego from April 12-15, said he listened to a compelling presentation made by the San Diego Unified District.
“They spoke about their food program and what it did,” Sykes said. “Attendance went up. Performance increased and discipline [problems]decreased.
“You can get that from the Columbus City Schools district, too. They did the same thing, and they found that when they give kids a hot breakfast, attendance and academic performance improves and discipline [referrals and incidents] go down.”
The committee also discussed strategies on how TPS can continue to become fiscally sound.
In 2012, food services received a $700,000 subsidy from TPS general fund, down from $2.8 million in 2004.
Citing high food and labor costs, Gant reported TPS loses approximately 17 cents for every elementary school lunch and 58 cents for every high school lunch it serves.
In 2012, TPS was reimbursed $2.94 per meal for each free or reduced lunch it served. Gant said that although about 78 percent of students would qualify for a free or reduced lunch, TPS serves only about 40 percent of those students. Gant said that if TPS developed an aggressive strategy in enrolling students in the free and reduced lunch program, food services could stop losing money and actually turn a profit.
Although Debroas said it had been TPS practice not to serve alternative meals for at least the past 12 years, Gant said he is inclined to pursue that option next year.
An alternative meal is a nutritionally sound but less expensive meal districts are permitted to serve to students who do not qualify for free or reduced lunches but cannot or do not pay for the hot meal prepared for the student body, Gant said.
Jean Ford, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 840 president, said when she began working for TPS in 1983, an alternative meal was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, fruit cup, large juice, milk and vegetable. Ford said districts no longer serve that meal because more children are allergic to peanut butter now.
“Now, an alternative meal would probably be a cheese sandwich, milk, juice and a fruit or vegetable,” Ford said. “It wouldn’t be the specific hot meal that we serve the children.
“Like today was taco meat with refried beans, Doritos, orange juice and milk. They would not get that. An alternative meal would not be all of that. I have to guess, though, because they haven’t told us.
“However, right now, we are not doing an alternative meal. None of us want any child to go hungry. We are just having them charge meals.”
Charging meals has created a fiscal dilemma, Gant said.
Ford said some students have “charged a substantial amount of money for their hot meal lunches. Their parents don’t want to fill out the free and reduced lunch application but they still want the students to eat. And we know some of them have the money but they won’t pay the charges off.
“And if you went through all the charges … Oh, my gosh. Going back to even just last year, it’s a few thousand dollars.”
Gant said that TPS needs to strictly adhere to its programs, policies and procedures.
“We have a program in place,” Gant said. “Fill out an application. If not, we will provide a nutritional meal, but not the meal that students whose parents fill out the application receive.”
BOE President Brenda Hill said one problem is that parents know the district won’t let their children starve.
Sykes said some of the problem lies in poor parenting.
“Some of our parents are irresponsible,” Sykes said. “The kids are raising themselves and we know that.”
However, Gant said TPS cannot ignore its own policies.
“We need to get parents to at least try to fill out the application,” Gant said. “However, we will always work on the principle that we are not to turn away any kid in need of food.”
Gant’s discussion of the Food Service Ad Hoc Committee’s decision to put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) to investigate whether the management and/or operations of food services could be better served by an outside firm drew immediate concern from David Blyth, AFSCME representative.
“What the Ad Hoc Committee wanted to look at were different options to see if there is anything we can be doing better as a district,” Gant said. “The concern, obviously, from the union’s perspective is that once you put those things out, although you will get back some suggestions, they may also suggest that the district actually farm out the whole operation and take over the employment of it.
“It’s been clear from our perspective — and one of the things that I said when we put this out — that there would be no change at all in employment arrangements with the district. That was my point.
“The other point I wanted to make is that when we analyze whether we should be doing it or not, a lot of things that Dave [Blyth] said needed to be considered. We’ll go though it thoroughly.
“We’re not going to automatically decide to use a management firm to run food services. When we went through this same process for the Print Services analysis, we came to the conclusion it was best that we continue to operate our print shop versus having it farmed out.”
Blyth said that although he understands Gant’s position, he does not think it was productive for TPS to put out an RFP.
“I don’t agree to that because what happens is, once you let a company like that in, they’re going to say, ‘Gee, part of the problem here is the pay that you’re offering employees,’ ” Blyth said. “What we want to do is hire the employees as older ones resign or retire.
“I just don’t think the school system should be a place where businesses should be making a profit off what should be a nonprofit activity, meaning our children.
“And I’m also fearful about getting a private concern managing food services. I have a feeling that we’re now giving up an important decision-making process. We’re giving up a function, if you will, of the school system to outsiders who are driven by the profit motive.”
Blyth said AFSCME’s apprehension with the direction of the Food Service Ad Hoc Committee stems from the possibility that its decisions may lead to an increase in student lunch prices.
“The biggest concern I have is that we somehow end up with a private concern coming in, and then the end result of that will be that the price of food will go up,” Blyth said. “We already know that we’re basically charging under market, based on what we saw from Cincinnati and the other school districts.
“I think there is a legitimate reason to raise our food charges, but I don’t think we need to get into a situation where they’re raised so a company can make a profit.
“I also think children value and do better when there’s a stable workforce in the schools and they’re seeing the same people day in and day out. I think it’s important to them. And I think if you go to a situation where you use a company that, frankly, is going to be paying minimum wage or a little above, you’re going to see an endless succession of employees. You’re going to see turnover far, far more than you do now because at that kind of money, people are going to work until they can find something better and then move on.
“And many of the food ladies have been there forever. Jean Ford, the union president, has been a food service worker for 30 years. She has a wealth of knowledge. She knows how to work around kids. The kids know her. And I think they’re better served having that stable and consistent face like Jean’s that they see every day.”
‘Including the kitchen sink’
Blyth said he also has serious concerns with what he characterized as a flawed performance audit.
“My main fear is that when people get to the bottom of that document where it says, ‘If you embrace these savings over five years, you’ll save $101 million.’ I’m concerned that people will look at that and say, ‘Oh, that’s where the money comes from. We don’t have to vote for any levies.’
“And the problem with the performance audit is, although there are a lot of good ideas there, they’ve thrown in everything, including the kitchen sink, to get to that number, and some of it just isn’t realistic. From what I’ve heard and seen, they were going by data that was previous to the transformation to K-8 so they’re looking at data and numbers that don’t really match the reality of where we are.
“And some of the stuff … I don’t think it’s going to be politically palatable closing down schools and combining this and that. I don’t think that’s going to work.”