By Mary Carpenter | Photo by Jessica McCafferty
Let’s begin with a history lesson.
When compulsory education became standard in most states at the end of the 19th century, educators recognized the need to feed the students, many of whom were living in poverty. In 1894, Philadelphia became the first major city to establish a school lunch program. Boston came next and the practice soon became common in large cities.
As the Great Depression engulfed the country in the 1930s, millions of Americans were out of work, farmers struggled to sell their crops and children needed to eat. It was then the federal government stepped in, bought up surplus food and hired thousands of women to cook and serve it to students. By 1941, every state had a school lunch program in place.
Five years later Congress passed the National School Lunch Act which standardized and federally regulated school lunch programs. In the 1970s the School Breakfast Program was added in recognition of the importance of good nutrition in the learning process. Both programs are still going strong, but times are changing in school cafeterias.
To learn more about those changes and their impact on our children and our schools, I recently visited Champlain Valley Educational Services (CVES) campus located off the Military Turnpike in the Town of Plattsburgh. While CVES offers a myriad of shared services to 16 school districts (Clinton, Essex, Washington, and Warren counties), for this issue of Strictly Business I wanted to learn about just one — its Cafeteria Management Program.
I was greeted by Eric Bell, Assistant Superintendent for Management Services, Julie Holbrook, Food Service Director and Sadie Kaltenbach, School Lunch Manager. “Students need to have energy and be in a good emotional state if they are going to learn,” Holbrook began.“Our job is to meet their nutritional needs in the two meals we feed them each school day. That way, even if they have a bag of chips and a soda for dinner — or no food at all — they are good until the next day.”
To meet that goal, the program has totally revamped food offerings. Gone are processed foods, food dyes, and excessive added sugar found in bowls of sugared cereals and Pop Tarts for breakfast and hot dogs or chicken nuggets for lunch. In their place are healthy, selections — eggs, breakfast sandwiches, bagels, homemade granola, yogurt, cheese sticks, and smoothies for breakfast. For lunch wraps, quesadillas, homemade lasagna, fajitas, chicken stew, and calzones are offered alongside a beautiful variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Oranges, apples, bananas, pineapple, peaches, kiwi, and watermelon can be found next to a salad bar that can stack up against our best restaurants with a variety of greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, peppers, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, watermelon radishes, cabbage, beets, potato salad, hard boiled eggs, cottage cheese, pasta salad, and the list goes on with many foods sourced from the farms of the North Country.
And then there’s the dessert program. “We focus on creativity,” Kaltenbach offered. “All our desserts — cakes, puddings, cookies — are made from scratch, in house using only healthy ingredients. You may be surprised to learn one of our most popular offerings are black bean brownies. The kids love them.”
The recent Saint Patrick’s Day holiday posed a challenge for Kaltenbach since the program does not allow for food dyes or additives to be used in food prep. How to make green cupcake frosting??? The answer was avocado, parsley and kiwi. “They were so popular,” she observed. “The students loved trying to guess which vegetable had been used.”
When CVES initiated its cafeteria program in 2015, four schools joined. Today that number has nearly doubled.
Plattsburgh City School District
Moriah Central School
Boquet Valley School District
Willsboro Central School District
Schroon Lake Central School District
Keene Central School District
And now, the newest addition to the program’s roster:
Peru Central School District
In September of this year, the Cafeteria Management Team will provide products and services to 15 campuses and approximately 5,600 students.
I asked about the advantages of participating in the program. “There are a number of reasons schools join,” Bell said. “We buy in bulk and source items like beef, yogurt, eggs, fruits, and vegetables from farms in our immediate area. Meghan Dohman, the Farm to Institution Educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Essex County helps with procurement through a Geographic Preference Bidding Process which supports our farmers and our students while every taxpayer benefits.
In addition, we provide our expertise to participating districts in areas like food choices, budgeting, ordering, and complying with federal regulations.
Cooking from scratch, rather than buying premade, processed foods offers increased nutritional value and measurable cost savings. “Anything we make in house costs less,” Holbrook emphasized. “We did a study across all of our schools, comparing the cost of buying premade frozen pizzas versus homemade pizzas. The result of making our own was a savings of up to $1.00 per slice of pizza served, which at 1,000 slices of pizza per week for the school year equates to $40,000 in savings. ”
Are there provable outcomes from this new approach I asked. Bell began, “Breakfast is served at 9 am in the elementary schools and lunch service begins at 10:30 and ends at noon. Based on the old menu plan (sugar intensive choices) that could mean a child ingested up to 100 grams of sugar in less than three hours. Research has shown that when chemical additives and processed foods are removed and sugar is reduced, students are calmer and better behaved.”
Holbrook confirmed that idea, “Within a month of introducing the new menu choices, we’ve had calls from teachers and administrators to tell us that student behaviors and attention have shown a measurable improvement.”
With the high quality, nutritious, made from scratch choices on full display in the cafeteria each day, student participation in the meal programs has increased. “Prior to the overhaul of some programs, schools averaged — at best — 50% participation. After the introduction, we see more excitement in the students and participation now averages between 60 – 90%,” Holbrook emphasized.
“Many of the school districts we transition with have had numerous years of budget deficits in their cafeteria programs. These deficits are covered by the taxpayers of the schools through a transfer from the general fund. Our most recent transition in 2021-2022 saw a cafeteria program go from a deficit of about $135,000 in 2020-2021 to a profit of over $168,000 in 2021-2022, which is an over $300,000 year to year change in net income. Not only are the students’ nutritional needs being met, the taxpayers of the school district are benefiting.”
It is no secret that many American children have an obesity problem, which means an increased emphasis on healthy, delicious school meals can help address the issue. “Each student is provided with one entrée,” offered Holbrook, “but if a student is still hungry after their meal, we offer seconds of our fruits, vegetables, and salad bar for free and we encourage them to try everything. Children’s nutritional needs are much different than those of adults. They need nutrient-dense meals and snacks and it is our job to meet those needs. We understand what we are doing now will help them build eating habits that will carry them through life,” she concluded.
The debate about what to feed our children has raged for generations. Give them what they like or give them what is good for them? Congratulations to Julie Holbrook, Eric Bell and the rest of CVES’ Cafeteria Management Team for finding a way to do both.
What’s in your children’s cafeteria?
CVES Cafeteria Management Program
1443 Military Turnpike
Plattsburgh, NY 12901