The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 12, 2003


Providing healthy school lunches kids want to eat

Recently, a number of changes have been made to the Carlisle School lunch program to improve quality and nutrition and bring the number of purchasers up. Last year, less than 40% of students at the public school bought lunch on an average day. This is well below the 70% to 80% participation other schools have achieved. The result was costs several thousand dollars short of break-even, and as a result, limited investment in the food program.

To many of us, the mention of school lunch conjures up memories of "mystery meat," cardboard pizzas, and mac and cheese of a color not seen in food before or since. Certainly the words "quality" and "school lunch" are not ones we're used to hearing in the same breath.

But as much of the methodology of education has made steady improvements over the years, so has the management of school lunches. Innovative programs in some schools have made lunch programs revenue generators. Rather than cut costs to the bone, these programs focus on food quality to increase the numbers of lunches sold.

Business manager to the rescue

When Steve Moore came to Carlisle in January as school business manager, he lost no time tackling the problem of an under-utilized lunch program. Moore was uniquely qualified for the job. In addition to his business credentials, he was school lunch director in Hull for five years, and once worked as sous chef at the Ritz Carlton.

Moore brought together an advisory council that included lunchroom staff and parents. The focus was initially on middle school students whose participation in the lunch program was the lowest. "We were feeding kindergarteners and eighth graders the same way," says Moore. "Kindergarteners were buying, but eighth graders weren't." Around this time a decision was made to increase lunch prices to $2 from $1.50, "so our challenge was to get more people to buy at an increased price."

Surprisingly, the price increase encountered no parental resistance, but Moore did hear from parents "who would be so happy if there was something their child would eat so they didn't have to pack a lunch each day." Student surveys provided additional input, as did the advice of an old friend of Moore's, Harvard Public School's director of food service, Paul Corinti, a former restaurant owner whose school-lunch program is among the most successful in the state.

Quality and choice

Based on this input, a number of changes were made to the middle school lunch program this year to improve quality and choice. Pizza-making was outsourced to Sal's Pizza of Chelmsford. By offering Sal's their government-issue cheese for use on the pizza, the school was able to negotiate a reasonable price. Now Sal's delivers 45 pizzas each morning, both pepperoni and plain.

In addition, a sub station was added, allowing students to design their own sandwiches with a variety of lunch meats, cheeses, and condiments. New entrees were introduced, including salads and pasta dishes, in addition to the traditional chicken nuggets and hot dogs.

Nutrition improvements

Food Service Director Joyce Lagadinos, a motherly type who calls the kids "honey," is pleased "we're offering nutritious meals. We've gotten rid of the fruit snacks and junk I never approved of." "A la carte" lunches for middle school students, which too often meant a pretzel for lunch, were eliminated. All lunches now include an entree, vegetable, fruit, dessert, and milk.

Lagadinos has also implemented a "full lunch or no junk" policy, meaning chips and juice are sold separately only after a lunch has been purchased. Fruit snacks and other junk food have been eliminated, and vending machines will carry water, flavored milk, and, possibly, sports drinks; "no soda, no way." "We're very fussy here," she adds proudly. "These kids are fed well."

Line time reduced as staff show patience

"One of the major reasons kids don't eat school lunch is it takes too long to get it," says Moore. With two lunch lines and separate stations for extras, "middle school students are now all fed within eight to ten minutes (of a twenty minute lunch period)." Since school began the cash registers have been moved three times to find the best locations to minimize lines. Moore congratulates the kitchen crew for their patience during this confusing time.

He notes that from the beginning, the staff has "embraced the idea" of change. "I think they felt this (food service) was a forgotten area over the years, and were pleased to see the administration take an interest." Many of the ideas came from within, and when Lagadinos visited Harvard's food service, "she came back full of suggestions."

Is it a success?

Although it's too early to make a financial analysis, it's already clear more lunches are being purchased, says Moore. "Participation appears to be more like 50%, versus 30% last year." Raising participation in the program is the key to breaking even. As much of the cost of providing lunch is fixed (salaries), the incremental cost (food plus paper) of a $2 lunch is between $.80 and $1 (Moore notes that, through careful management, offerings were upgraded without raising food costs). This means each additional lunch sold adds a significant amount, roughly $1, to the bottom line.

Moving forward

Once the kinks are worked out, elements of the program will move down to the elementary school. This will be done cautiously, as mid-year changes tend to cause considerable confusion among younger students. The eventual goal is that 60 to 70 percent of the students body purchases lunch on a given day.

Moore notes "labor is a big cost" and long-term profit goals must be modest. "If we make a penny profit on each lunch, we're doing well." Eventually he hopes the program can generate revenue to be invested in the lunch program for salaries and equipment improvements. For example, "We would love to be able to buy soup tureens and bowls so students could serve themselves."

But perhaps the best reason for change to the lunch program is the opportunity to improve the school day experience. After all, lunch is the high-point of the day for most students. In a school which prides itself in quality in so many areas, a first-rate lunch program supplying tasty, attractive, nutritious food seems long overdue. Bottom line, says Lagadinos, "We've made the food better and are offering such a variety. I think the kids are really pleased."

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito