At the Board of Education (BOE) meeting on Thursday, June 20, Wilton Schools (and Town) CFO Anne Kelly-Lenz presented a proposal to the BOE, requesting that the district cease participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
According to Kelly-Lenz, while there is a cost associated with “coming off” of the program, there are other benefits to doing so. Because the program has what she called “very stringent” requirements about what kind of food and how much food is served, quite often the cafeterias wind up throwing away significant amounts of food. By coming off the NSLP, the district can still follow nutritional requirements and guidelines, but also eliminate waste.
In addition, by following its own guidelines instead, the Wilton district would be freed up to offer items that aren’t on the NSLP guidelines, including locally grown, organic items as well as items kids are more likely to eat. One example she cited was the district being able to offer four kinds of soup, where the national program only allows one type of soup.
“It will give us a different variety while still keeping our nutrition,” she explained.
Brian Reynolds (who heads up Chartwells Food Services, the vendor for Wilton Schools), offered further rationale, using a more ridiculous requirement to illustrate why no longer participating in the national program makes sense.
“There are a few guidelines that lock us in to things that are not appropriate. Like you have to serve an orange vegetable once a week, and you have to serve a green vegetable once a week. Something like that may not seem like a lot, but if you have green beans on the menu and the truck doesn’t come in that day, we have to serve another green vegetable. If you don’t have a spare one…” he said, to some laughter from Board members.
“There are a lot of pieces that don’t work very well,” he said, adding that making the change would make a difference. “We won’t miss a beat, our culinary [offerings] will be raised, kids will see more of the things they see when they go out with mom and dad–as opposed to what was geared to inner cities, that kind of meal–so I think it’s a win-win. Putting together the pros and cons, I had a hard time finding cons.”
Kelly-Lenz said she and Reynolds visited cafeterias in the Weston School District, which was successful making a previous similar move off the national program two years ago. Reynolds added that Weston, with a similarly-sized district, was able to make a larger profit by changing their menu program.
There is a cost implication by coming off the national program, according to Kelly-Lenz: Wilton would lose state reimbursement monies and would also lose commodities supplied by the USDA. But Kelly-Lenz was able to find savings in fee-reductions elsewhere that would offset some of those costs. “That was to me, the flag going, we could actually do this.”
In addition, Kelly-Lenz said the district may add a potential $0.20 per meal increase, as well as increase the number of a-la carte items, all of which would be expected to increase profits.
Another appealing feature of not following national guidelines would be relaxing the requirement for milk-only lunch beverages. Until now, Wilton was required by federal guidelines to make only milk available as part of a meal; Reynolds said opting out of the national plan would allow the district to offer water as an option–again, a move that would likely reduce waste as he reported that many kids simply dispose of the milk because they dislike drinking it.
“There kids out there that don’t drink milk, they want the water. They’ll still have the option, and we’ll make it that they can sub[stitute] the water for the milk, at no additional charge,” he said.
Students who want to order larger portions will now have that option. On the national program, the school would only offer students who wanted more the option of purchasing a second complete meal.
Reynolds acknowledged that communication home to parents will be a key element of making any changes. He referred to existing program elements that he can use that were implemented by Weston, including a parent survey.
The BOE members voted unanimously to approve the proposal, allowing Kelly-Lenz to opt out of signing the contract with the national program.