Friday, May 25, 2007
Home cookin' for Carlisle School students
Two dollars won't buy much at a Boston restaurant, but at the Carlisle School Corey Dining Room it can buy a delicious and healthy "home cooked" meal. Tacos with the "fixins," pasta with meatballs, build-your-own chicken fajita, or oven-baked chicken are a few of the many lunch choices Carlisle students have each month. Included in the meal is unlimited fruit, and sides like corn, beans, mashed potatoes and/or garlic bread. If they don't like the meal of the day, students can go through the à la carte line for salads and bagels. Much of the food is homemade by the friendly dining room staff: Robin Kepple, Donna Bunker, Sheila Morris, Zoe Pierce, Laura Pottie and Food Service Director Susan Robichaud.
Robichaud, who said she loves her job, was hired as the Interim Director in April 2006 (see "Carlisle School names interim Food Service Manager," Mosquito, April 7, 2006). After completing required courses in state requirements, nutrition, and management, she received a strong recommendation from former Carlisle School Business Manager Steve Moore to take the post permanently. Her management style, Robichaud says, is to "treat them the way I want to be treated."
Most of the food served to over 400 students each day is not pre-packaged but made fresh on site, such as "our own turkey soup," Robichaud said. If a food can be easily made, she explained, she sees no need to pay extra to buy the food ready to cook or eat. As an example, she said that some dining rooms purchase their ground meat, and then send it to a "meatball" manufacturer. Instead, the staff makes the 30 pounds of meatballs "by sitting around, making meatballs, and chatting." Being thrifty, she does not waste food. "The girls will tell you, 'Sue does not throw away anything.'" Leftover vegetables, for example, may be used in a soup, as toppings on a pizza, or in hot mixed vegetables, she said.
School lunches evolved
With all the tasty choices Carlisle students have for lunch today it is hard to imagine that at one time children in Carlisle were sent to school with no breakfast or a scanty lunch (or no lunches in some cases). The science of nutrition for children evolved slowly in the United States, especially in small farming communities such as Carlisle. In the 1700s educators saw the connection between good nutrition and the ability to learn, but school systems depended on local charities to donate meals. In a report by Gordon W. Gunderson, who supervised nutrition programs for US Department of Agriculture, nutritional support focused on "needy children," and was not organized at the federal level until the 1940s and 50s. (See "Early Programs in the United States," www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Lunch/AboutLunch/ProgramHistory.htm)
Carlisle's farming community
In the 1800s the students in Carlisle were taught in five school districts (Centre, North, East, South, and West) and most of the families were not well to do. Students would either bring food for their noon meal, or, if close enough, walk home for lunch. In rural schools such as Carlisle's, Gunderson explains, "Children came to school from long distances, and their lunches at noon consisted mainly of cold sandwiches, many of them of questionable nutritive value." In Carlisle, Its History and Heritage, by Ruth Chamberlin Wilkins, we learn that teachers would sometimes walk home for lunch, leaving students at the school. She relates the story of Miss Jennie Bowers, the teacher at the Centre Red Brick School: "When she had gone for lunch to her near-by boarding place, two of the big boys filled the stove absolutely full of wood, so that when she returned and it was time for school to begin, the stove was completely red hot and glowing." In Carlisle's Town Reports, from 1850 to 1888, each year the Superintendent of Schools focused on the students' performance and behavior and not on their health or reasons for poor performance, as was the custom of the times ("spare the rod, spoil the child"). In that time frame only the 1860 report mentioned concern about the students' welfare — the discomfort of the "narrow wooden seats" at one school.
In the 1900s the country began focusing on the connection between nutrition and learning. In Boston, around 1908 for example, the Women's Educational and Industrial Union started serving hot lunches to high schools in the Boston area. Carlisle also followed this trend around the time students moved into the newly constructed Highland Building at the end of 1908. Soon after the move a rise in concern over underweight students is seen in the Town Reports. Students were still bringing their own cold meals to school, but around 1930, Wilkins reports, an innovation was put into place which allowed "a warm dish at noon." The students would bring "a jar of soup or chowder or cocoa or stew." A large, flat pot of steaming water would be placed on the stove and the students' containers would be placed in the water to slowly heat.
In need of shoes and teeth
In 1933 School Nurse P.S. Ouelette reported that numerous Carlisle students had poor teeth and no shoes. "The teachers very much desire that these children be given a hot lunch. Already the P.T.A. has taken the first step in this direction." In 1934 the School Physician, R. F. Johnson reported that, "a great percentage of the children were found underweight." In 1935 the school nurse, Mrs. Lily E. Miller, reported, "From the funds raised by the sale of the Christmas Seals the committee has asked me to serve a mid-morning lunch to the children who needed it the most. Some of them are to have Cod Liver Oil also."
Meals were still eaten at the student's desk, but in 1948, Wilkins reports, "Superintendent Blynn E. Davis, speaking about the need for additional space at school noted that "our School needs a lunch room," and by the time the Spalding Building was built in 1957, concerns about underweight students had ceased.
New payment system
Move forward to 2007 and not only are students fed well, but now the concerns switch to students who may be overweight. A new lunch payment system, MealTime, was introduced in the fall of 2006, which can track foods purchased by students. The system eliminates the use of lunch tickets; instead lunch money is deposited in a student's online account via cash, check, or credit card. When students purchase lunch they enter their student ID number on a keypad, Robichaud explained. The system displays details such as the student's name, photo, account balance, and food allergies, and the cost of the lunch is deleted from the running balance. Most students still pay with cash, Robichaud said, and only a small portion of parents use the credit card option, which charges a fee equal to a percentage of the deposit. Parents who wish to view their child's lunch history or make deposits can access MealTime through the school website, under "Lunch" in the General Information topic. There are additional features such as state reporting and details about students' purchases that the school can take advantage of, Robichaud said. Next year she will program the keypad to play "Happy Birthday" on a child's birthday.
Sources of foods
All school lunches have to follow strict federal nutrition standards. Robichaud purchases food from local vendors but a portion comes from government distributors, a program started when the national lunch program was introduced in the 1940s and '50s. She receives a list each month of what discounted government foods are available, and she carefully reviews each item, both for cost savings, which are substantial, and usefulness. Robichaud will experiment with the government foods, but won't serve what she doesn't like. She bought pre-mixed eggs, similar to "Egg Beaters," and found them excellent for scrambled eggs, but not for baked French toast. She refuses items like the diced chicken ("Disgusting, and nasty," she said, "comes from the bottom of the barrel.") She said the fresh potatoes are excellent, and good for mashed and potato salad.
New trays, variety of meals
The kids and the staff love the new sectional trays, purchased through a grant from the Carlisle School Association. The trays wash up quicker, "saving so much water," Robichaud said. In fact she posted a chart on the dining room wall explaining to the ecology-minded kids how much water the new trays saved. Kids like them because their foods "don't touch," and they look forward to the "Lucky Tray" days, Robichaud said. A number of trays have a special sticker on the bottom which wins the student a small prize like a sherbet pop. Plates are still used for the large meal salads, and all-you-can eat soups. Pizza and cold sandwiches are available as alternatives to the hot meal.
Robichaud said student favorites include chicken patties, tacos, and pasta. Eighth-grader Nick Hanson said he buys the main meal "depending on what's for lunch. Usually the pasta is good. The pizza is getting better. Before it used to puff up." He said his favorite is the chicken teriyaki with the lo mein noodles. He likes the salads and salad dressings, and thinks the pasta is the most popular for the seventh and eighth graders. Sadina Videlock, sixth grade, agrees that the pasta is good, but with the meatless sauce. "The meat in the meat sauce is sort of chewy," she explained. When the hot meal is cheeseburgers, she goes to the à la carte line. "I usually get a salad or a bagel. I think they have a pretty good menu," she added.
"No junk food," is for sale, Robichaud explained. Gone are the chips, cookies, and other treats from the old days. Once in a while she has low-fat, nut-free Otis Spunkmeyer oatmeal cookies, which the ladies bake themselves, or freshly popped popcorn in their own large popper. A serve-yourself fruit bar is offered every day, allowing students to make their own fruit salad. Students can also help themselves to whole fruits like apples and oranges anytime, she explained, pointing to the woven basket on the counter by the register. She used to keep the fruit out by the tables but soon found the energetic middle schoolers were taking extras to use as balls on the plaza.
Always revising menu
Robichaud said she is constantly checking her lists of "what was made, what sold, and what we should make less of." If an item isn't to her satisfaction or isn't popular, she won't make it, she said. She knows middle school students eat more than the elementary students, and is studying how to create enhanced choices that will please the older students. She works over nine hours a day, and is passionate about providing the best her dining room can offer. It is nice to know Robichaud is in charge of the dining room. "As much as we can," she said, "we make it by hand."
© 2007 The Carlisle Mosquito