Quality up, costs down in School Lunch program

By Amy Chapmanfood

SAD 44 Food Service Director Jeanne LaPointe shared some good news with school directors recently.

“This program is one of a very small handful of schools in the state of Maine that are operating in the black,” LaPointe told the board.

The food service program pays for staff salaries and benefits, as well as all of the food that is served, and this year is paying for needed repairs to equipment.

“Those are pretty significant costs that this school nutrition program is able to absorb,” LaPointe said. “We’re now operating at approximately $45,000 in the black. That is pretty outstanding, because just eight or nine years ago, we were closer to $150,000 in the red.”

SAD 44 once had a full-time food service director, but for the past several years has been contracting LaPointe’s services from SAD 43, now RSU 10.

“When Jeanne first came on board, our food service program needed some help,” said Superintendent David Murphy. “We have seen some great gains since then. Any time you can take a $150,000 negative and turn it into a $45,000 positive, and see the quality of offerings improve at the same time, it says a lot about the program.”

LaPointe said there are only a few districts in the state that share a food service director, “but this is a relationship that has worked very well. We order the same food for both districts and run the same menu, pretty much. It’s a solid relationship that works well for both.”

Operating with a checkbook balance makes implementing recent federal changes in school meal pattern requirements easier, she said, and also allows the program more opportunities to explore purchasing local foods.

LaPointe said new USDA standards for school nutrition programs have resulted from First Lady Michelle Obama’s push for healthier foods to be served in schools. Standards now require more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and limit the amount of sodium and saturated fat in items served at breakfast and lunch.

In addition, new “competitive food rules” establish guidelines for foods outside of the National School Lunch and School Breakfast program that are sold at schools. These include food items sold in vending machines, at school stores, or as a la carte menu items in the cafeteria.

LaPointe said she does not expect incorporating the competitive food rule changes to be difficult in SAD 44.

“Selling snacks was never the backbone of the school nutrition program here,” she said. She added that some school districts may find it more challenging to comply with the new rules because their a la carte items have included mostly items like pizza and sandwiches.

Under the new rules, a food item’s first ingredient must be a whole grain, fruit, vegetable, dairy product, or protein food. Entrees must be under 350 calories, and snacks under 200 calories.

“It’s quite complex, but there will be some snacks that we can still sell to students, and fruits will be included,” LaPointe said.

Requirements have been implemented gradually. LaPointe said last year’s challenge was to ensure that each child had at least a half-cup of fruit or vegetables on their tray at lunch. This year, the focus has been on increasing whole grains in both breakfasts and lunches.

“Next year, all grains will be whole grain, and we’re adding an additional serving of fruit to breakfast,” she said.

LaPointe said a federal Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program grant that Andover and Woodstock Elementary Schools have received for several years was expanded to Telstar Middle School this year. The grants are awarded to schools where more than 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price meals, and provide funding for the purchase of additional fruits and vegetables to be served to students during the school day.

Woodstock director Marcel Polak asked how local foods are incorporated into the district’s nutrition program. “It’s not only important for the kids to be eating local foods,” he said, “but it also provides an economic multiplier effect, spending dollars in our community.”

LaPointe said SAD 44 buys some of its beef from Carter’s Farm in Bethel, and also purchases locally grown apples, cabbage, carrots, and salad greens when they are available. The expansion of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program grant has provided additional funds and more flexibility to seek out local offerings, and the district also purchases Maine-grown foods from Crown of Maine, a small organic cooperative in Vassalboro.

Local food purchases can be more of a challenge, since they are not delivered through the school’s food service, and require establishing and maintaining relationships with smaller vendors, but LaPointe said she is committed to expanding the amount of locally produced food served in the schools.

“There has been a lot of work in the last two or three years,” she said. “There is a lot of change happening in the school lunch program, but it’s exciting change, and it’s the direction that a program that’s feeding children should be going.”