When school shut down mid-March, the School Nutrition team did not sit idle. Instead, we applied to serve meals away from campus, scrambled to determine what meals we could put together and safely serve, and started handing out meals on March 17th. We, like grocery stores, were not immune to shortages on delivery trucks and we soon realized what we had planned was not working. So we sought out shelf-stable meal kits that we could pack in bulk and reduce everyone’s exposure. When school was officially out for summer, we experienced a dramatic drop in families coming to pick up meals. This led us to have excess inventory of shelf-stable meals which we have had on the menu sporadically this school year to be financially responsible.
Please consider the consequences of your criticisms. When you use negative and judgmental language, it can make parents feel bad about letting their children eat at school or even worse children who enjoy our meals push away. Dedicated school nutrition staff deserve your respect and thanks for all their training and hard work to feed kids every day. We served 91,200 meals to children from March 17th until school resumed in August.
School nutrition personnel have a tough balancing act with complex government regulations, limited budgets, and limited input into school schedules that affect recess options and the length of lunch periods. Like you, they care deeply about feeding children well – and are trying to do the best they can with what they have. If the desire is to have organic, GMO-free, clean-label, local, scratch-cooked meals, you are going to have to help schools lobby local, state, and federal decision-makers to provide more money for school meals, as the average school district, has $1.50-$1.75 to spend per meal. While meal prices and USDA reimbursement rates provide slightly more money, that money is intended to offset labor, equipment, and overhead costs.
We do however exceed minimums of USDA meal patterns by frequently adding protein to our breakfast menus, focusing on whole fruits rather than fruit juice, and restricting our breakfast meals to 8 grams of added sugar or less. We also avoid artificial food coloring and other additives when procuring our food items. If you want to find the most up to date meal offerings go to park6.org or our app. Select your child’s school site, open the explore drop-down, and select dining.
It is true that Park 6’s School Nutrition Department has become a go-to purchaser for local producer’s bumper crops. Be mindful we feed a family of 600-800 people so when we purchase it is in large amounts. When COVID-19 hit, the interest in local foods increased exponentially as grocery store supply chains were interrupted. This is wonderful news for our local producers but it has meant our school nutrition department has not received calls from those producers asking if we have homes for bumper crops or overproduction. We also could not keep up with the rising local beef prices. They are doing great things and gearing up to be a very large employer for the area but with local interest so much higher for their product; we can’t be a regular customer. Instead, we shifted to sourcing more from our local food service supply company which in turn allows them to run more cases through their operation helping them be viable and another local employer. While our local purchases do not look the same as years past, I assure you we are still committed to this community we call home and look forward to getting back to regular purchases of locally grown foods.
Until we can get back there, when you address your concerns I encourage you to lead with empathy and contact Genevieve Sheets, Registered Dietitian, and School Nutrition Director directly. You can email: email@example.com or call 307-587-4285. If you have Facebook, check out the struggles, perseverance, and successes of child nutrition programs across the country at the group TIPS for School Meals That Rock.