Healthier snacks trim revenues in high school budget

Warm bagel and panini sandwiches and a fresh fruit bar are among many options the cafeteria offers each day. — Photo by Janet Hefler

You can lead teenagers to healthy snacks, but you can’t make them eat them, as cafeteria staff and school administrators are finding at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS).

Without the sales of snacks and beverages such as French fries and chocolate milk, now banned by strict state nutritional guidelines, revenues for a la carte items were down about 16 percent in September and October, school accounts manager Mark Friedman told the high school’s budget subcommittee on November 4.

No more French fries on the menu translates to a loss of $5,000 alone last year, school business administrator Amy Tierney told the budget subcommittee.

And without chocolate milk and many other popular snacks, Mr. Friedman added, “There’s less to purchase, and that does affect the bottom line, as well.”

The revenue drop continues a trend he reported last year. At the school committee’s June 10 meeting, Mr. Friedman noted that daily food sales were down by about $31,459, or about 14 percent, from the 2011-2012 school year.

As superintendent of schools James Weiss explained, the cafeteria serves a very prescribed lunch, laid out by the National School Lunch Program. “And in many cases, it’s not stuff that high school kids want to eat,” he said.

“If you look at the change from elementary school, including middle school, to high school, you’ll see a drop,” Mr. Weiss said. “Even if the food is wonderful, you’ll see a drop when kids get to high school because it’s a whole different ballgame. Add to the fact that the offerings are healthy, it drops even more. So that puts a real strain on high school cafeterias nationally, and on us as well.”

Hello greens, goodbye fries

The high school adopted a leaner, greener menu last year in response to new Federal and State guidelines implemented in August 2012 for school meals. In addition to requiring more vegetables and whole-grain enriched bread, the guidelines also banned many popular snacks such as French fries and cookies.

School cafeteria managers and contractors must select items from the “A-list,” which names acceptable vending and snack products that meet the Massachusetts Nutrition Standards for competitive foods and beverages in public schools. The list is compiled by the John Stalker Institute of Food and Nutrition, a partnership of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Framingham State University. Snacks must fit certain criteria for calories, fat, protein, salt, and sugar.

For example, calories may not exceed 200, and of those, total fat or total sugar may not be more than 35 percent. No artificial sweeteners are allowed. Chocolate milk is off the list because of sugar content. Chips of any kind must be baked, not fried.

Chartwells, a national food service management company, has been under contract since 1992 with the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools to run the high school cafeteria. The new nutritional guidelines went into effect shortly after Chartwells hired Bernadette “Bernie” Cormie as the new cafeteria manager in 2012.

“Last year was tough,” Ms. Cormie said. “There was a lot of knee-jerk reaction to the guidelines. We were very strict, though, and upheld them. Then the government came in, in January this year, and relaxed them. Not the State of Massachusetts, though.”

In addition to strict criteria for snacks, the state limits the sale of beverages to water, milk, an eight-ounce serving of flavored milk or milk substitutes with no more than 12 grams of added sugar, or a four-ounce serving of 100 percent fruit and/or vegetable juice with no added sugar.

Variety of choices

Ms. Cormie said the cafeteria offers water only in its vending machines, as recommended by the school’s Wellness Committee.

“In previous years, we used to be able to offer flavored drinks, for example, Gatorade, and that was a huge hit for us,” she said.

A la carte snack items this year include baked potato chips, Doritos, Goldfish, Nature Valley granola bars, a Goldfish graham cracker cookie, caramel corn made from popped rice cakes. Ms. Cormie said she is encouraged to see the Stalker list of snack items growing, from one page last year to four this year, with new products available from United Natural Foods. Some items, however, would have to be repackaged to adhere to serving size restrictions, which requires more labor.

Although a plate of French fries is no longer an a la carte option, there are many options to choose from, as Ms. Cormie pointed out to The Times on a tour of the cafeteria during the lunch rush last week. The cafeteria makes soups in-house three days a week and offers a variety of entrées that include vegetarian dishes, as well as a pizza bar, salad bar, and fruit bar, she said.

Last Tuesday’s selections included whole oranges and red and green apples, grapes, and fresh-cut cantaloupe and pineapple, along with Government supply cups of sliced strawberries. Fruit smoothies are available at breakfast three of five mornings a week, Ms. Cormie said, as well as yogurt, granola, and fruit parfaits.

What students think

Opinions were mixed in talking to a sampling of students, who offered a variety of opinions when asked what they thought of the snacks and cafeteria selections.

While choosing items at the salad bar, senior Mariah Campbell said she thinks most students like the snacks that are available. “We’re a pretty healthy student body, in general, because most of us play sports,” she pointed out.

“I’m skeptical,” junior August Welles said as she waited in line to pay for a panini sandwich made with ham and cheese, the first she had tried. “Pasta is popular on Wednesdays,” she said. “We used to have a sandwich bar last year, and I’ve missed that. I’d like more of a variety of fruit.”

When asked what snacks they would like the cafeteria to offer, a table of six boys reeled off a list: Oreos, bottled fruit juices such as Naked Juices, better pizza, and fried chicken.

“They should take the emphasis off the organic stuff, and make the snacks more edible,” freshman Jesse Dawson said.

The group did agree that the healthy snacks that are available are pretty good and also are not too expensive.

“Chocolate milk needs to come back,” junior Kyle Dostal said. “And the pizza really needs some work.”

Junior Eli Hanschka said there should be more variety. He suggested fresh bell peppers, carrots, and hummus as additions he would like.

Ms. Cormie said she plans to roll out some premium meals in the next few weeks, such as California spring rolls, to entice some new takers. She also has some ideas for other snack and menu items , such as granola bars with dried fruit made in-house, and a noodle bar with broth, veggies, and protein selections.

Ms. Cormie said she hopes to add a refrigerated snack vending machine and stock it with items such as apples, celery sticks, and pre-made wraps and sandwiches, so that students could grab something to eat after school, before heading off to sports and other extra-curricular activities.

“We’re working hard,” Ms. Cormie said. But the reality, she acknowledged, is that kids want cookies and chocolate milk.

Cafeteria funds

The high school cafeteria operates on a revolving fund. It includes revenues from food sales and covers expenses for breakfast and lunch programs.

The school is partially reimbursed for meals provided to students signed up for the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. The federally assisted meal programs provide nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches each school day to children whose families meet income eligibility.

The number of MVRHS students in the programs averaged 126 in September and October, which is about 18 percent of the school population. Principal Stephen Nixon said he thinks that is the highest it has been in many years.

The cafeteria charges $1.75 for breakfast and $3 for lunch. The high school is reimbursed according to what meal students receive and what category they are in, Mr. Friedman said. For students who are eligible for free meals, for example, the high school receives a Federal reimbursement of $2.93.

Under the new nutrition guidelines, every meal a child takes has to include a fruit or vegetable. Prior to July 2012, a school district received reimbursement and a subsidy for a slice of pizza. Now, a student must order a salad, fruit, and milk with the pizza slice to make it a complete meal or it is considered a la carte, and is not eligible for reimbursement.

Mr. Friedman recommended that the high school budget subcommittee add a $47,000 line item in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget to help cover another anticipated shortfall in the cafeteria’s revolving fund this school year.