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School food earning higher marks in Addison Northwest

VERGENNES — Earlier during her Vergennes Union High School years senior Emma Husk was not exactly thrilled with the school food, either its taste or its quality.
“It wasn’t just that I didn’t like it, but it made me feel like gross and slow and groggy,” Husk said.
Her friend and classmate Kaitlyn Brace, one of a group of seniors and juniors that usually eats lunch in a room off the school library, also gave a thumbs-down review of what used to be served in the VUHS cafeteria.
“I used to bring my own lunch so I didn’t have to eat the school food,” said Brace.
But they and their friends offered a different take on this year’s cafeteria offerings — and the service they receive from the workers there.
“It’s a big step up from last year. The food’s better. The lunch ladies are super,” said junior Cyrus Devine. “It’s a different culture going on. They like what they’re doing.”
And they enjoy more than just the lunches, which have a list price of $3 but are offered at no cost to students eligible for free or reduced price meals — $1.85 breakfasts are also popular.
“Breakfast has picked up,” Devine said. “They used to have nasty breakfast sandwiches, and now they have smoothies every day.”
The mention of those smoothies, and the variety and care with which they are made, drew nods of approval from the lunch group. Junior Megan Vorsteveld chimed in on the smoothies.
“Some of those staff put in their own time to make those smoothies and make different smoothies and add different things to them, and to create different flavors and make them better for the students,” said Vorsteveld.
Husk, Brace and Devine all said they went from buying no meals at VUHS last year to becoming daily purchasers this year, while Vorsteveld said she buys more meals.
What has changed? The newly unified Addison Northwest School District (ANWSD) essentially merged its food service with that of the also recently unified Addison Northeast Supervisory Union. Kathy Alexander, credited locally with improving the Ferrisburgh Central School food program, now supervises both the Vergennes-area and Bristol-area districts’ nutrition programs.
Husk, Brace and Devine ate Alexander’s food as elementary students and were happy to hear of her return to their district.
“We know all about it,” Devine said. “She was the bomb.”
Husk laughed that many of their friends were puzzled by their enthusiasm about a district-level food-service merger.
“No one else from other schools quite understood what we were so excited about,” she said.
NUMBERS AND MONEY
The food service merger has made the most impact at VUHS. Lunch participation has risen from 40 percent last year to 56 percent this year, and the percentage of students who buy breakfasts has gone from 13 to 22 percent.
Alexander noted in an email the three ANWSD elementary schools were already operating more successfully than VUHS, although there has been a 5 percent rise in breakfast participation at Vergennes Union Elementary School and a 3 percent rise in lunch participation at Ferrisburgh Central.
“All school meals have for a long time been prepared by a dedicated and skilled group of staff who work hard to feed kids well. However, initial data, post consolidation, shows maintenance of last year’s numbers with slightly increased numbers in some schools,” she wrote. “A more dramatic increase in participation is seen at the Vergennes High School where delivery models, menus, and overall program changes were made.”
Many school food service programs run in the red, and as well as providing good nutrition, administrators try to maximize the number of students eating meals in order to minimize losses. ANWSD administrators busy before the holidays did not have time to pin down the district deficit for this article. But, for example, in early 2015 the VUHS food service deficit stood at about $150,000, and in early 2016 the Addison Central School deficit was about $100,000.
ANWSD Superintendent JoAn Canning said it’s too early to measure the financial impact of the food service merger, although an impending audit should pin it down. In the meantime she is confident the merger has helped.
“We have increased participation, and when you increase participation you’re going to bring in revenue,” Canning said.
She also emphasized finances were only one goal of the merger — nutrition matters.
“We’re having common training, so we’re systematizing the food service across the four schools,” Canning said. “By doing that we’re able to establish high quality food across the four schools.”
PRICING
Canning also noted meal prices will probably rise gradually over the next few years.
“The other thing we have to keep our eye on is the cost,” she said. “There is a gap between the federal guidelines and what we’re charging. But we don’t want to take such a big jump that people get upset with that, so we’re going to slowly close that gap.”
Alexander said prices would only change after a process that includes “careful consideration to what families can reasonably pay for school meals” that must take into account U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines.
“In essence, USDA does not set prices for school meals, but does establish rules to help schools make sure there is enough money between federal reimbursements for free meals and paid meals to cover a reasonable cost of meals,” she wrote. “Each year schools are required to use a calculation tool to determine if the price of school meals meets the requirements. ANWSD is in full compliance with this rule. Meal pricing will be reviewed each year to determine appropriate pricing levels to maintain a financially stable program that operates well within schools and supports families.”
Given the positive reviews, possibly at least at VUHS students — and staff — would tolerate a price increase.
Administrative assistant Betsy Sullivan spoke enthusiastically about the food when answering a question related to the story, and Principal Stephanie Taylor said she and teachers are buying more meals and leftovers to take home.
“The number of meals served is up dramatically. The number of meals served to faculty is up dramatically,” Taylor said. “I’ve brought it home for our supper, too. I was excited they had eggplant parmesan today.”
Of course not all students enjoy all the food. That eggplant dish generated mixed reviews.
“Some things are better than others,” Devine said. “I’m not sure how I feel about the eggplant thing,”
But all agreed they liked side salads and the variety of fruit, with local apples a favorite. Other options Taylor mentioned were cups of grapes, fresh pineapple chunks and even sliced kiwis.
“It seems like there are more options for fresh fruit,” Taylor said.
And the students in the group said their peers at VUHS generally shared their favorable opinion of the cafeteria.
“All the feedback I’ve got, from people talking about it, they say it’s a lot better,” Devine said. “It’s definitely a big change.”
And, they emphasized, the entire experience is better, thanks to the staff.
“It’s the atmosphere, too, not just the food. I think it’s their willingness to be, like, ‘Yeah, I can do that for you, or change it up a little bit,’” Brace said. “I don’t eat red meat. I just eat poultry and fish, and I haven’t had one day where I haven’t been able to eat. They’re very accommodating.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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