Petition drafted to improve school lunch

By Alex Gershanov
Published: September 2010

To the misfortune of many South students, a budget cut of $500,000 has cut this year’s lunch menu from 11 options to five. Though a private company, Whitsons New England Inc., was selected in late June to oversee food services in Newton Public Schools, negotiations between the School Committee and the School Nutrition Workers Association have yet to be resolved. Whitsons cannot take over before the two parties reach an agreement.
Students are disappointed that with the budget cuts many of their favorite lunch options have been removed. In particular, South’s cafeteria no longer offers breakfast, a deli/wrap bar, a self-serve salad bar, a separate snack bar, and rarely offers the French-fry-burger option.
Many students are also disappointed that there are few or no vegetarian options available.
“Being a vegetarian in America is no rarity, senior Lauren Johnstone said. “It is unfair that I am unable to eat whenever I forget to pack my own lunch.
Attempting to bring more options to the table, Johnstone wrote a letter to Rob Clickstein, the district lunch program director, and plans to send it to him if the situation does not improve. She also created a Facebook group to raise awareness of the issue and to spur action.
“I drafted the cafeteria reform letter into a petition as well, she added. “If this new company does not come through, I have plenty more signatures to get, including the 350 of [students who joined] the Facebook group. I plan on continuing the reform.
It is uncertain when the School Committee’s negotiations will be over and hence uncertain how long the cafeteria will be offering these interim period food options. Clickstein declined to comment about the status of negotiations or when Whitsons will begin to manage the cafeterias. He added only that he is aware of parents’ and students’ concern over the current system.
Unsurprisingly, equipped with $500,000 fewer than previous years, the current cafeteria staff is struggling to offer a variety of options to students.
“[After budget cuts], the menu I was given has the same choices every day for a whole week, South cafeteria manager Linda Cloonan said. “We are trying to add to that; we’ve been trying to change it up and do the best we can.
Cloonan operates with a staff of only seven this year, as compared to last year’s staff of 12. The only way to save the $500,000 demanded of them by the School Committee, Cloonan explained, was to lay off workers and reduce the menu. She added that she simply does not have the staff to operate a cafeteria equivalent in value to last year.
While the budget cuts may intend to save money, the lack of options has resulted in fewer students buying lunches as well. Cloonan explained that last year’s sales were approximately 500 lunches a day, and this year’s current sales are approximately 425. Over 180 days, if each lunch has an average cost of $3.50, the program is losing over $45,000 in sales, thus furthering the system’s deficit.
Many faculty members, including Principal Joel Stembridge, miss the self-serve salad bar the most.
“I’m disappointed that we’re starting the year this way; it wasn’t anyone’s intention to start with a lower level of service to the students, Stembridge said. “But that’s the result of the size of the staff going from 12 to 7; they can’t possibly maintain the same level of service with half the staff size.
Students, on the other hand, are most concerned about the lack of a morning option. Many students depended on South offering breakfast, especially those commuting to school from Boston.
“For the past two years, I ate breakfast at school because I didn’t have the time to wake up, get ready, and catch the bus,” senior Kyla Kouadio said. “ever since they cut funding, “I’ve been less attentive in classes and always hungry.”
In response to student demands, several groups including Turnaround and the Senior Class Officers have begun selling healthy options for breakfast.
“It’s a great opportunity to raise money for our class as well as meet the needs of the students who need to buy breakfast at schools,” Senior Class Office President Sophia Zarsky said.
In addition, it is still unclear what options Whitsons will provide once they do take over. Due to the confidentiality of the negotiations process, officials are hesitant to definitively comment on any details.
“I saw a list last year of what [Whitsons] was offering at a School Committee meeting, Stembridge said. “I think it was greater than the number of options than we had last year.
While this sounds appealing at first, Stembridge was uncertain that this would remain the same.
According to him, some of the money that was allocated for Whitsons was used to fund the current food program. Thus, it is unclear whether or not they will be able to provide the same value they had originally intended.
When Whitsons does take over, however, the current staff’s positions may be in jeopardy.
“When the new company comes, we will have to interview for our jobs and the pay rate would be significantly lower.
Cloonan predicted that her wage would be cut roughly 40 to 45% and that less of her staff would be eligible for health benefits while working for Whitson.
Johnstone hopes that the School Committee will be quick to make a decision regarding food service and provide better lunch options.
“I think the most important thing is to add more vegetables and healthy yet appetizing food, she said. “Too often have kids come up to me, especially since my public attempt at reform, telling me there was nothing they wanted to eat so they got chips or a Rice Krispie treat. Students need healthy options to make the right choices.

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