School district works to improve meals

By Greg Oliver
Courtesy The Journal

COUNTY — Grousing over new federal guidelines regarding school meals is nothing new. However, increased complaints, especially regarding food being wasted by students, continue to lead those in charge to come up with ideas for improvement.

Sally Nicholson, nutritional services director for the School District of Pickens County, said the district served 782,927 breakfasts and 1,774,084 lunches last year for a total of 2,557,001 meals. She added the average percentage of participation for breakfast and lunch this year shows a 1-percent decrease for breakfast and 2 percent for lunch from the 2013-14 school year to the current school year of 2014-15.

On a positive note, she said participation through December was up 1 percent for breakfast and lunch. January and February were marked by a large flu epidemic in January and snow days plus late arrivals and early dismissals due primarily to inclement weather — all of which impacted meal participation.

Nicholson also pointed to a survey regarding food choices and quality, whose ratings went from “very satisfied to satisfied.” She said an overall rating of 53 percent reported being “satisfied” while 38 percent said they were “very satisfied.”

Six schools were surveyed. The rating, which generated only 38 responses, gave “very satisfied” ratings to the cleanliness, appearance and overall atmosphere of the overall cafeteria environment; and “satisfied” ratings for noise level and the amount of time available to eat. Survey participants, when asked how satisfied they were with complete meals, answered they were “satisfied to very satisfied” and on individually priced items, were “neutral to satisfied.”

“The survey was conducted for adults, students, children, anyone who takes part in the school breakfast or lunch program and was put on the school website and district website,” Nicholson said.

But board member Henry Wilson said he has concerns about students being disgruntled over meals — placing the blame not on Nicholson and her staff, but rather the federal guidelines all districts must adhere to in order to receive federal money.

“The very last time I ate (with my son), every child asked if I could do something about their food,” Wilson said. “I have seen them throw away pizza and other food items.”

Board member Alex Saitta questioned the 53 percent survey rating for “satisfied” and 91 percent when combing those who were “satisfied” with those “very satisfied.” When told by Nicholson those numbers were only based on those participating in the survey, Saitta remained skeptical.

“I just don’t think it’s improved from 53 percent to 91 percent,” Saitta said. “My kids, when they were going to Holly Springs, they bagged it.

“It’s not your (nutrition services) fault. When you take federal money, you take these Michelle Obama requirements and they’re very bland (because there is less fat, salt and calories while higher in fiber).”

But Wilson said he has a problem with the amount of food that gets thrown out each day, something he personally witnessed during his recent school lunch visit. That has been a common complaint among critics, pointing out that food items disposed of include traditional favorites such as pizza, hot dogs and corn dogs.

“The fact we’re taking federal money just to throw food away is disgusting,” Wilson said.

Nicholson agreed, adding that nutrition workers that work hard to prepare the food are even more disgusted with seeing it thrown out. When asked whether students that do wish to receive an extra hamburger or meal item upon request, she replied they could do so at the price of a regular meal.

“On the second item, you don’t get the reimbursement rate, so it’s cheaper for the child to get a whole second tray,” Nicholson said.

In an effort to increase student participation, Nicholson said her department has come up with a number of ways to get more students to eat school breakfast and lunches. One of those is through taste testing events.

“We conducted several taste testing events with all age groups of students throughout the school year,” Nicholson said. “Products had to receive a 90 percent approval rating to be considered for next school year and we will be adding several of these new items to the 2015-16 menu.”

As if the problems already experienced due to federal regulations passed in recent years wasn’t bad enough, food service officials say an increase in meals again appears inevitable for next year.

Nicholson said she has budgeted a 2-percent increase as her proposed FY ‘15-16 budget of $8,374,976 is lower than the $8,516,206 her department is operating under in the current fiscal year. That amounts to a 10-cent increase — to $1.30 for breakfast for all students and $1.90 for elementary lunch and $2.15 for secondary lunch.