Shelton Board of Ed backs healthier school meals

The Shelton Board of Education (BOE) has voted to participate in the state’s Healthy Food Initiative after a presentation from Sodexo, the food service provider for the city’s schools.

The initiative puts restrictions on what food and beverage items can be sold in the schools. The BOE also voted to implement an exemption option for non-school-day activities so groups can still hold fund-raising events with foods that might be less healthy during off hours.

About three-quarters of the school districts in Connecticut have joined the Healthy Foods Initiative, which provides food service providers with an added 10-cents per meal reimbursement from the state, Sodexo officials said.

Mike Grey of Sodexo said serving healthier foods is the new reality, despite some initial resistance from students and parents. “We’re going to do things differently and convince parents this is the right thing because it isn’t going away,” he said of the effort to provide healthier meals in schools.

Student and parent complaints

This has been a school year of challenges for Sodexo, with the new U.S. Department of Agriculture rules to make school meals healthier.

The federal rules have required many changes in what can be offered — less protein, less salt, and more fruits and vegetables. The rules also mandate smaller portion sizes. Not all of the changes have been popular with students or their parents.

School Supt. Freeman Burr said “we heard a lot about reduced portions” at the start of the school year. He said parents were telling school officials, “Our kids are still hungry after the meal.”

This was a particular concern for parents at Shelton Intermediate School whose children are involved in afterschool activities, Burr said.

Many school districts have experienced the same problem, and a national backlash has since caused the USDA to make adjustments in the rules.

Some Shelton parents also complained about the government being heavy-handed with the new rules, according to Burr. “Government is trying to dictate what we eat” is what some parents told school officials, he said.

Lunch sales are down

Sodexo has seen a 9% reduction in the number of students paying for school lunches in Shelton during the current school year, which translates into serving 200 fewer meals a day.

That has led to a loss of $47,000 in profit for the company, said Alan Dean of Sodexo. “We want to bring this profitability back,” he said.

The Healthy Food Initiative, with the added state reimbursement, will help do that.

Dean said a few years ago, school food service providers also lost the ability make money off the sale of certain snack foods that had been profitable.

Grey said losing student consumers at the start of the school year is tough, but experience shows that most will eventually come back to the school lunch program.

Linda Stanisci, who runs the Sodexo operation in Shelton, emphasized the low cost of school lunches when compared to food options outside of school.

School lunches cost $2.55 at Perry Hill and Shelton Intermediate schools, and $2.80 at Shelton High School. “What a bargain,” Stanisci said.

‘This is the new model’

School board members said getting children to eat healthier is the way to go, even if the idea isn’t popular at first.

“Kids are going to balk at it, but this is the new model,” BOE member Win Oppel said.

BOE member James Orazietti said providing healthier fare is the right thing to do for kids. “We used to have soda machines in the schools,” he said. “We don’t have that anymore. We’re going in the right direction.”

BOE member John Francino-Quinn said he hopes serving healthier meals in the schools will lead to youngsters getting their parents to change food-buying habits at home.

BOE Chairman Mark Holden joked about one way to get youngsters to consume more fruits and vegetables. “Everything would be easier if the government would recognize chocolate as a fruit,” he said to laughter.

Off-hours exemption

Some board members were concerned the Healthy Food Initiative might impact the ability of groups — including sports booster clubs and student clubs — to hold fund-raising drives with food items such as cheesecakes and candy.

Dean said with the exemption option, such items could still be sold at the school but just not during school hours.

The BOE voted unanimously to approve the Healthy Food Initiative, with the off-hours exemption. Participation in the initiative must be approved on an annual basis.

Other Sodexo efforts

At the meeting, Sodexo officials highlighted some of the unique programs they provide for the school district. This includes a KId’s Healthy Cooking Club and a future chefs competition emphasizing healthy eating habits.

Also, all Shelton schools have received the bronze medal in First Lady Michelle Obama’s Healthier U.S. School Challenge. The awards honor schools that create a healthy environment through school meals, physical education and nutrition education.

Only 6% of schools in the nation have received awards in the program, Sodexo officials said.