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School Lunch Program Debuts to Mixed Reviews

pastaDespite months of planning, collaboration with parents and teachers and the best of intentions, the Scarsdale School administration found themselves on the defensive at a Board of Education meeting on 9/17 about a new district-wide lunch program that recently launched.

Last year, the district announced that they would take over "Lunch in Hand." the elementary school lunch program formerly run by the PTA’s. The PTA selections were popular with the kids and some parents were skeptical about the change. However, the Superintendent indicated that state regulations required that food service be run by the district.

The new program is self-funded and run by Chartwells, an outside company who employs the cooks and staff who run the program. Chartwells was already on board in Scarsdale where they ran food service in several district schools that have their own kitchens. But this year they were tasked with expanding hot and cold food service to four elementary schools without kitchens.

Meals are cooked in the kitchen at the high school and transported to the elementary schools. There is a choice of hot lunch or on-the-go bistro lunches. The cost of the meals is $5.50 per day. Plates, wrapping and utensils are all recyclable – or compostable -- which complies with the district’s sustainability goals -- but drives up costs.

Parents use a software application called Nutrislice to order for up to eight weeks of lunches. The software displays the nutritional content of the meals, including fat, carbs, fiber, calories and sodium. The program allows parents to indicate any allergies to prevent orders which contain those ingredients.

At the school board meeting on September 17, Dr. Hagerman announced that the new Executive Chef for the program resigned suddenly this weekend. The district’s school lunch manager has also retired. He explained that both departures caused challenges for the fledgling program.

In response to complaints about the lunch prices, which are higher than last year, Hagerman said that it takes more staff to run this program and that the prices reflect district goals for “wellness and sustainability.” He said they are using better ingredients like high quality deli meats. Assistant Superintendent Stuart Mattey explained that some neighboring districts have lunch subsidies for qualified students, while Scarsdale does not receive that funding.

Mattey announced that Monday 9-17 was the first day of the new program at Fox Meadow and Greenacres School, where 275 students were served lemon chicken and green beans and gave the meal a thumbs up. He explained that new equipment including food warmers and heaters were ordered and called the program “an enormous logistical undertaking.”

He said Chef Mike’s resignation was “disappointing” but said that Chartwells had sent in a chef from a school district in New Jersey to fill in. A new chef, sous chef and dietician will be hired by Chartwells.

To complaints about the food ordering snags, he said, “Nutrislice had some technical issues,” that are being addressed.

A few parents attended the meeting to convey their concerns. Jane Martin of Clarence Road asked, “Why is it more expensive than towns like Rye… we are almost twice as much. What about more choices for kids with dietary restrictions, such as vegan or dairy free. Kids are left with a tossed salad because they don’t eat meat. There must be things we can offer.”

A Fox Meadow mom came on behalf of many who were at the school picnic. She said parents were concerned about the price as well as the nutritional content of the meals. She said the meals were high in calories and had more sodium than a MacDonald’s “Happy Meal.”

Parents who commented online were also unhappy with the price and asked why last year lunch was $4.25 per meal at Quaker Ridge and is now $5.50. They complained that with just one hot lunch choice, options were not available for kids who didn’t like that meal. Other felt that the menus, which include entrees like General Two's Chicken and Chickn Paprikash, were too sophisticated for young children. One mom said, "My son loved pizza day. Now that's gone. I wish they had left well enough alone."

There also appeared to be limited flexibility on Nutrislice, which did not for example allow a parent to add the choice of yogurt to the hot meal selection. Still others complained that ordering one meal at a time on the app was time consuming and frustrating.

The program is only weeks old and the district promised to reply to parent emails, address concerns and post an FAQ online to answer some of the many questions that have been raised.

At the end of the meeting, Mattey provided some pricing from Rye Schools but said a direct comparison cannot be made bewteen the two districts as Rye's prices are not for entire meals and are not served on compostable materials. He said, “At Rye High School, lunch prices vary from $4.50 to $6.00 for sandwiches. Entrees start at $3.50 but they do not use compostable supplies or utensils. At Rye Middle School, a deli sandwich is $5.00 with $4.50 for hot lunch items.”

Until the kinks are ironed out, some parents are resigned to going back to packing lunches.

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