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Hot lunch committee works to improve school meals program

Parents from the Kenmare PTA and the Kenmare Public School kitchen staff met with the school board’s Hot Lunch Committee in an August 3rd session that was contentious at times as the two sides discussed their differences over the school’s meal program.

8/10/11 (Wed)

By Caroline Downs

Parents from the Kenmare PTA and the Kenmare Public School kitchen staff met with the school board’s Hot Lunch Committee in an August 3rd session that was contentious at times as the two sides discussed their differences over the school’s meal program.
Parent Becky Stroklund spoke on behalf of the PTA. “We discussed concerns we’ve heard from the parents, the teachers and the kids,” she said.
As board member Michele Nelson chaired the meeting, Stroklund presented the PTA list, which started with a suggestion to form a committee with school cooks, parents, students and teachers as members to discuss and improve the meal program during the school year.
Stroklund pointed out differences between the way the food is served at the high school and elementary school, saying that children at the elementary school were sometimes expected to ask for food, such as fresh vegetables, they may not have known was available to them.
“Some parents say their kids are not getting enough to eat, but I’ve been at both schools and had the meals and that is not an issue,” she added. “Maybe the PTA has a role here to educate parents and kids about healthy eating choices and eating what is provided. “
Stroklund asked about the process of transporting food from the kitchen at the high school where it is cooked to the elementary school, how the meals were kept hot until served to the elementary students, and if ingredient lists could be posted for those students with food allergies to review.
The issue of food allergies was discussed at a Hot Lunch Committee meeting in May, with school administrators saying parents provide information about their child’s allergies at that time. However, that information is only collected for elementary students at this time.
The PTA offered suggestions for foods they would like to see included on the salad bar, with more fruits and vegetables, a variety of lettuces, yogurt, cheesesticks and dried fruit. The organization also asked that at least two meals each week be homemade rather than relying on processed items.
“We know the kids love some of the meals, like the baked potato bar and the chili crispitos,” Stroklund said. “We’re just asking for some small changes to make the meals healthier and less processed. Every parent I’ve talked to about this is willing to pay more money if the lunch is healthier and more homemade.”
Head cook Barb Henderson came prepared with information about the federal guidelines for the school’s meal program and her process for planning menus for the meal program (see related story). “I feel really bad you think we don’t make the hot lunches healthy,” she said.
She went on to address some of the PTA’s specific concerns, explaining that all canned fruits and sauces are ordered in the lightest available syrup, that bread products served are whole grain, and that she makes several of her menu items from scratch, including pasta salads, items on the baked potato and pasta bars, chili and all soups except for the chicken noodle served to the elementary school. “I buy the canned soup for them because that’s what they’re used to seeing at home,” she said.
Mothers in the room agreed with Henderson it was difficult to satisfy the needs and the taste preferences of the entire student body with each meal, especially with the constraints of $2.50 per meal and additional health concerns about childhood obesity trends. “We brainstorm new ideas all the time,” said Henderson. “A lot of this has to come from home. [The students] don’t want to listen to us about food choices.”
Henderson also explained her staff size is now reduced to three individuals at the high school and one at the elementary school, with a schedule from 5:30 am to 1:30 pm. “We don’t have any subs,” she said. “The hard thing about that is I can’t guarantee any hours, but I hope someday somebody will come along and say that will work for them.”
She also noted she was running an ad in The Kenmare News to hire substitute cooks for the school kitchen.
Stroklund pointed out the meeting that day was the fourth or fifth time she had approached the school to discuss concerns about the meal program. “I am a spokesperson for a lot of people,” she said. “We’re not saying the school lunch is broken and needs to be fixed. We want to help, and if our role in that is to help educate the parents and the kids, we’ll do that.”
She continued, “We want more kids to eat at the school. We know that benefits the school.”
The PTA and the school cooks will work together on the new Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program that begins for Kenmare Elementary School students this year. Under a USDA grant, students in grades kindergarten through six will be served fresh fruits or vegetables with their morning milk break three days each week.
“Education is a big part of that program and help from the PTA would be wonderful,” said business manager Renae Murphy.
In addition to talking with classes about the new program, PTA members were also asked to volunteer their time once a week to assist the kitchen staff with washing and preparing the fruits and vegetables for the snacks. “I’m glad we can help,” said Stroklund.
The Hot Lunch Committee will meet again in September with plans then to set up the committee of parents, students, teachers and kitchen staff as requested by the PTA. “There are so many things people think of for the meal program, but there are also reasons some of those things cannot be done,” said Stroklund. “A committee would be a great source of ideas and communication about that.”
Nelson suggested that parents with concerns about the meal program should take an active role to be involved in finding answers or making suggestions. “They can contact [superintendent and elementary principal] Duane Mueller, who can take it to the people who need to work on it,” she said. “Parents need to take accountability and responsibility.”
No budget line item for food
The committee held a lengthy discussion with Murphy about the absence of a line item in the budget for food purchases in the school meal program. “Salaries are a budgeted item, but food is not,” Nelson said.
By her own calculations from last year’s budget, the average monthly food cost worked out to be $7200.
Murphy explained that Henderson spends $2.50 per meal, multiplied by the number of students eating. “The money for that comes from a completely different fund,” Murphy said. “There’s no way we can budget food until we know how many people are eating every day.”
A percentage of the school’s meal costs are reimbursed by the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.
Murphy continued, “This provides flexibility for [Henderson]. The cost of the meal varies by menu, and the only real number we have is the end of the year total.”
Committee member Mike Zimmer explained the school board did include a line item of $10,000 in the budget to be used in case of cost overruns in the school meal program.
“But our labor costs increase every year and our food costs increase every year,” Nelson said. “I want us to budget for that.”
Confidential status for
Free and Reduced meals
In response to a concern relayed by Nelson from a parent in the Kenmare school district, Mueller and Murphy emphasized the importance of maintaining confidentiality on all applications received for the free and reduced meal program.
A child’s use of the program is neither discussed nor listed anywhere for other school staff or students to see. School administrators and the two school secretaries are the only district employees who have access to the free and reduced meal program information.
 Meal tickets are no longer used by students. Instead, identification numbers are keyed into the computerized record system at each meal by the secretaries.
“Each kid has an ID number,” Mueller said. “The only way anybody knows is if the parents and the kids say something.”
Mueller and Murphy noted free and reduced meal applications and information was included in the registration packets for students this year. Parents are strongly encouraged to apply.
Anyone with questions about the form or eligibility requirements is welcome to contact Mueller or Murphy during school hours at 701-385-4996 for assistance with the application.
In Other Business:
*Committee members reviewed the 2011-2012 meal ticket prices at $2.50 per student and $3.00 per adult.
*Superintendent Mueller confirmed that meal serving times would remain the same even though the start of the school day is a few minutes earlier this year.