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Workers worried as Highlands School District considers outside food service

| Saturday, April 26, 2014, 1:31 a.m.

Tammy Jones is worried that a possible move by Highlands School District to an outside food service company could mean lower quality for district students.

Jones of Harrison is one of the district's “cafeteria ladies.” The district runs its own food service program for breakfasts and lunches in district schools. Jones and other cafeteria workers are district employees.

But that could change if the district decides to contract out for those services. At last week's board meeting, school board members voted 8-1 to advertise for proposals from outside firms.

“If we get a food service, what is the quality of the food they serve?” Jones asked. “Can you go to a district where they serve now and visit at any time? Who determines menu choices? Will they learn the names of your children as we have?”

If the district were to hire an outside firm, the current cafeteria workers could lose their jobs.

But district officials said the move to request proposals is exploratory and does not mean the district has decided to outsource that service.

“The main focus is our students, always has been and always will be,” said Superintendent Michael Bjalobok. “We may look at this and say, ‘Everything is perfect here.'

“All these questions that you asked will be answered as part of that process.”

School board President Carrie Fox said board members have an obligation to the taxpayers to see if something such as an outside food service can provide as good a product as the district has now for a lower cost.

Bjalobok said the district's food program is projected to lose as much as $140,000 this year.

Regardless of the decision the board makes, said Fox, the district will honor its contract with cafeteria workers, which runs through August 2015. If an outside firm is brought in, it would have to be after the contract expires.

If the district does opt for an outside management firm, it would be following a national trend.

“There is a nationwide trend, there's no question about that, as far as school districts going with food management companies,” said Rick Voight, executive director of the School Nutrition Association of Pennsylvania. “School districts are having to deal with a shrinking dollar from both the local area and the state.”

SNAP's membership is made up of school food service directors and workers and Voight said, by going to contracted food management companies, some school boards might be looking too hard at the bottom line and overlooking some other important elements.

“As a management company employee, you come in the morning and you leave the end of the day and that's it. They are not going to have the same level of involvement with the school and the community,” Voight said.

Valerie Nartowicz, SNAP president and food service director for Upper Perkiomen School District in Pennsburg, PA, said the local aspect of district-operated food service operations is important.

“That is the pride that your food service employees have because they live in that community, which you don't have with a food service company unless they keep the same workers,” she said.

Nartowicz said shrinking state subsidies and other budgetary pressures are not the only reason in-house school food service programs are having trouble staying in the black. Another big reason is the nutrition regulations imposed by the federal government on all districts that receive federal food subsidies.

She said that, to make a profit, a district food service has to have at least 60 percent of the students participating. But federal regulations require students be served food products that are whole grain, baked foods instead of fried foods and fresh fruits and vegetables — all of which are more costly, and in smaller portions.

The aim is to meet the federal government's goals of holding high school lunches under 850 calories, middle school to 750 calories and elementary schools to 650 calories.

The result is fewer students buying school lunches because they don't like the food and those that do will often throw away things they don't like, causing a lot of food to be wasted, she said.

“The kids come in, they want chicken patties versus chicken filets. They want fried foods, the kinds of food they eat at the mall,” Nartowicz said.

“A lot of the problem, too, is they are saying there just is not enough food.”

“I'm a dietician, I think it's great but that's not how people eat,” Nartowicz said. “We feel that it should be the parents, not the government, telling their children what to eat.”

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or tyerace@tribweb.com.

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