Plate full for Chartwells in feeding Martha’s Vineyard students

Paul Sardini stirs homemade chicken stock. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Every school day Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) food services director Leslie Floyd and a staff of six cook and serve more than 800 meals for high school and West Tisbury and Chilmark school students.

They work for Chartwells, a food service management company, and work under a contract signed last November with the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS).

In December, the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) school committee voted to add funds to next year’s budget for both kitchen renovations and a food service program at West Tisbury School. During the budget public hearing discussion on December 19, some members of the group lobbying hard for the changes criticized Chartwells in harsh terms.

At one point in the hearing, school business administrator Amy Tierney reminded everyone that the school districts have a contract with Chartwells. “Some of the things you’ve said about them tonight are defamatory to them” she said. “I’m not comfortable with that.”

Unfair comments

Ms. Floyd said she was unable to attend the meeting and was upset that she had no opportunity to rebut their remarks or correct misinformation. “One of the comments made at a school committee meeting is ‘my child gets sub-par food,'” she noted, which was in reference to box lunches served at Chilmark School.

“I get what they’re saying, but for them to only have cold sandwiches is not the fault of Chartwells,” Ms. Floyd said. “It’s not going to change when West Tisbury School gets their kitchen, unless Chilmark School can provide me with a ServSafe certified person there every day to serve hot food.”

In addition to negative comments at the budget hearings, Ms. Floyd said flyers distributed by some members of the group charged that food served by Chartwells at the up-Island schools was “hazardous,” based on temperature tests they said they had conducted.

“I have friends who have children at West Tisbury School and the high school, and they called me up and were saying, what’s going on, you’re giving our kids hazardous food?” Ms. Floyd said. “I don’t think this was done with malicious intent, but that’s the way it came across.”

Ms. Floyd said she met superintendent of schools James Weiss and Ms. Tierney, as well with West Tisbury health agent John Powers and West Tisbury School principal Michael Halt, before the December school break.

“John basically put Michael’s worries at ease and explained to him that I’m within the ServSafe standards regarding holding hot and cold food and that I’m doing everything correctly,” Ms. Floyd said. “I also made sure my team at West Tisbury was aware of that law and understood everything 100 percent.”

In response to the criticisms, Ms. Floyd asked the contract committee and Island Grown Schools (IGS) program leaders to meet with her last Thursday so she could set the record straight.

“I told several of them that whoever was guiding them down this path was not basing it on fact and current state law, and I supplied them with the ServSafe rules that we follow,” she said.

“I asked them for a public apology and told them that I wanted it to be in both Island newspapers, because these comments had made it into both of them and had been distributed on Facebook,” Ms. Floyd added. “I need parents on the Island to understand what we do on a daily basis to feed their kids.”

In a Letter to the Editor published in today’s Times, Pamela Spencer, a member of the Chartwells high school staff, took direct aim at the critics.

“The attackers appear to believe that the only way to achieve their goals is through a campaign of dramatic hyperbole,” Ms. Spencer wrote. “Perhaps this group believes that the only way to persuade the voters to approve the expenditure of close to $200,000 is to convince them their children are in danger.”

High marks

Not all are unhappy. At a recent school committee meeting, MVPS superintendent James Weiss read a letter from senior Eva Faber praising the lunch program.

“The improvements I’ve seen in the lunch program over my four years at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School have been astounding,” Ms. Faber wrote. “The new ideas brought to our cafeteria under the leadership of Leslie Floyd, including the Ready Set Deli bar, a much more diverse salad bar, freshly made soups, a snack bar and countless new a la carte meals, have made dining at MVRHS a pleasurable experience and one full of choices.”

Many of the critics who attended the public hearing in December also participated in the food services management contract process and took the opportunity to argue in favor of kitchen renovations and the start-up of a separate food service program at West Tisbury School.

With that in mind, Ms. Tierney said the request for proposals was written in such a way that the UIRSD could end the contract after the first year, if it chose to do so.

Buying local challenge

Ms. Floyd, the food services director since October 2010, does all of the ordering and meal planning. Menus and recipes available on the Chartwells website have been nutritionally analyzed to meet the standards and guidelines for food served to children.

“We have contracts with vendors that allow us to get rebates on food, which decreases the cost of foods that are purchased within the rebate program,” Ms. Floyd said. “Plus we do all the accounting work and have a website for each school where menus and nutritional information can be found about all foods we normally serve.”

Last year, Chartwells launched a “Simply Good” campaign to use local foods. However, as Ms. Floyd explained, buying local is not always easy. For example, for health safety reasons, Chartwells requires certain standards backed by certifications.

“We made other arrangements to make sure that food is processed safely so we could bring in locally grown products,” she said. “We were originally asked by the contract committee and by Island Grown Initiative to bring in more local food, and I had to tell them that many small Island farms don’t have the money or the time to go after these certifications that Chartwells requires.”

Another problem Ms. Floyd faces is that local products are not always available year-round and are difficult to count on since she has to plan menus a month in advance. She also has to keep costs in mind when buying local, since her budget has to break even every year.

“The food cost is taken out of the $2.75 per lunch, along with everything else, so I only have 30 to 35 percent of that to spend on food,” Ms. Floyd said.

From pots to plates

Providing meals for three schools takes some careful planning and orchestration by Ms. Floyd and her staff at the high school. The West Tisbury and Chilmark schools do not have fully equipped kitchens. Their food is prepared at the high school, put into hot or cold containers, and transported at about 9:30 am by van.

Chilmark School receives on average 8 to 12 cold meals a day, usually box lunches.

West Tisbury School, which does have a stove, convection oven, salad bar, steam table and soup warmer, averages about 120 meals served a day. Ms. Floyd sends the salad bar provisions over from the high school. Two part-time Chartwells employees do the prep work and heat and serve the food to students at the West Tisbury School,

The UIRSD budget includes about $13,000 to pay their wages, as well as $3,150 a year per school for food transportation costs.

New contract

Chartwells has run the high school’s food service operation since 1992 and the UIRSD’s since the mid-1990s. As the only company that responded to the RFP, Chartwells was awarded a new one-year contract, with an option for two one-year extensions.

Chartwells earns $44,000 for operating and managing the food service for MVRHS District and UIRSD. The lunch price for students was increased from $2.25 to $2.75 this year. Adults pay $3.75.

“If there is a deficit at the end of the year, that amount comes out of their management fee, so we are guaranteed to break even,” Ms. Tierney said. “We reimburse them for the cost of labor, food, expenses and other management fees on a monthly basis, and keep all the rest of the revenue from lunches sold.”