Change on the menu?

February 16, 2019 GMT

GREENWICH — Students in one Greenwich Public school could become taste testers for meals from tantalizing turkey tacos to spicy sushi rolls that one outside provider promises will satisfy even the pickiest eaters.“We want to have improved quality of food — food that the kids will eat,” said Lauren Rabin, school board member and Food Services Committee representative.Town officials working to improve the school district’s Food Services Department say the program has two shortcomings: First, students are not buying the meals, and second, the meals are unhealthy. The school administrators and town representatives calling for change think a third-party food provider specializing in healthy, kid-friendly meals could solve both problems.Fewer school lunches are being purchased in Greenwich schools, despite increases in both enrollment and the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. In a districtwide survey in 2017, parents and children criticized the food for poor quality and the program for lacking healthy options.In the context of declining participation and dissatisfied clients, the Board of Education will, for the first time, discuss letting No Fuss Lunch, a New Jersey-based food service provider, serve food at one or two schools this Thursday, said Rabin. They will vote on a pilot program at a meeting in March.“There’s a link between nutrition and academic performance: The schools with the highest (participation in) free and reduced-price lunch have lower academic performance,” Rabin said. “There are a whole lot of factors that go into that, but if we can improve what they’re eating in school, that will make a difference.”Currently, the department buys food, prepares meals at Greenwich High School and distributes them to the schools in the district in accordance with the guidelines of the National School Lunch Program. The state of Connecticut and the federal government reimburse the town for every breakfast and lunch it gives out for free or sells at a reduced price.But since 2014-15, participation in the food services program has declined, Rabin said.The survey found more than half of parents want better lunch options and more organic fruits and vegetables, and more than 80 percent want a basic lunch that includes a healthy snack or dessert, rather than their kids buying extra chips, cookies and ice cream. Sixty percent of parents would be willing to pay more for healthier options.In response, the Food Services Department vowed to improve its program. It swapped some snack options across grade levels, and is reducing the number of daily choices at elementary schools to focus on preparing and serving better products.John Hopkins, the director of the Food Services Department, did not wish to answer questions before the Board of Education meeting.But board members are interested in exploring if the third-party provider could increase buy-in from parents and provide the healthy meals to students that the department has not.No Fuss LunchGabriella Wilday founded No Fuss Lunch in 2012 to bring healthy, tasty food to school lunches and she now works with 60 towns and cities in New Jersey and New York.Her kitchen feeds kids an entrée with whole grains, grass-fed beef or cage-free poultry, a fresh vegetable with dip, fresh fruit, a small treat and purified water. Parents and children pre-order their meals on the No Fuss Lunch Website, and the meals arrive in time for children to eat.“People think school lunch is really complicated,” she said. “It’s simple.”The ingredients are organic, non-GMO meals, free of white flour, white sugar, high fructose corn syrup and MSG.Wilday’s company does not work in schools that receive government subsidies because, according to its founder, the national guidelines place limits on ingredients and innovation.Every town she works in has a population of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, however. To make sure these children can afford these meals, she started a nonprofit that uses community and corporate fundraising to subsidize meal costs for families who qualify.The school chosen to pilot No Fuss Lunch would go off the National School Lunch Plan, and a large part of the board-level discussion of finances will be to consider if the food service provider and the town could, together, sustain the growing population of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals.In 2018, 31 percent of students were automatically enrolled in subsidized meals, up from the 25 or 26 percent of families who have applied since 2013.When schools enroll in her program, families receive an account that children and parents use to pre-order the meals they would like to eat that day or week.“We’re better prepared to serve children on a given day,” she said. “Food is waiting for the children as soon as they get to the cafeteria.”The system cuts back on food waste, and when children have a say in what they order, they are more likely to eat it, Wilday said.Long lines in Greenwich schools could also be alleviated. Currently, many students opt to bring their own food because they do not want to stand in line for most of their lunch break. By ordering ahead, students wait in line for less time.Rabin and her fellow board members will review a timeline of the food services committee, the state of food services today, and go over the parent and student survey, “which has been glossed over,” she said.The school board will discuss if students will have equal access to good food while no longer on the national school lunch program, and the financial ramifications of taking this step.Greenwich High School went off the national school lunch program, and the income there absorbs the lack of revenue from the students who receive free or reduced-price lunch. Rabin hopes that this will occur at the pilot school they choose, one that has low participation rate and a small population of students who receive free or reduced-price lunch.Lunch averages from September, October, November and December 2018 indicate International School at Dundee, North Street, Riverside, and Glenville have the lowest school lunch participation rates.Any one of these schools could be candidates, but the district cannot — in the long-term — have some schools off the National School Lunch Program and using No Fuss Lunch while others continue on the current model.“It’s not something we can do at some schools and not others permanently,” Rabin said. “But we can think about piloting it and see what we learn.”jo.kroeker@greenwichtime.com