Food fight: It’s contract time and Silver Falls food services has supporters, detractors (Updated)

April 2016 Posted in News, School
Elementary students waiting in a school lunch line. 2015 File photo

Elementary students waiting in a school lunch line. 2015 File photo

By Kristine Thomas

When it comes to food, everyone has an opinion on what they like and dislike.

The same can be said for the Silver Falls School District’s food service program.

On Feb. 1, 2015, Sodexo began to manage the district’s food service. The feedback has been both positive and negative. It depends on who you ask.

At the April 11 school board meeting, Silver Falls Superintendent Andy Bellando plans to recommend the board renew its contract with Sodexo.

Several parents and district employees shared they would like the board to meet with food service staff and parents before making a decision on continuing the contract.

In the April 1 posting of this article,
Scotts Mills parent Courtney Goode said
that the response to her concerns received
from Superintendent Andy Bellando was that
of surprise. In the story Bellando was
attributed with saying the district had
received no complaints about
the school’s lunches.

Upon re-examining her email correspondence,
Goode says that the district response that
the school had received no complaints about
the food should have been attributed to Scotts
Mills School Principal Kirstin Jorgenson.

Both Ms. Goode and Our Town regret any confusion
this may have caused.

Our Town
strives for accuracy and clarity
in fostering the community conversation.
We appreciate our readers’ and sources’ assistance
in keeping the record straight.

– April 15, 2016

District’s case 

Bellando said the board identified two goals for establishing an arrangement with Sodexo – “growth in participation by students and progress toward reducing the amount of general fund dollars used for operations.”

Bellando said progress has been made on both goals.

“I am very pleased with our relationship with Sodexo and fully support their renewal,” Bellando said. “The decision to partner with them has not only helped meet the two board goals, but has helped us become compliant and improve the food services program across the district.”

The superintendent said he plans to cite other areas of improvement, including a compliant food service audit for the Oregon Department of Education; safety and healthy compliance; increased use of local foods; increase in youth participation and sites for the summer lunch program; and assistance with applying for state farm-to-school grant programs.

“Sodexo provided additional food service equipment to the district. They evaluated our previous staffing assignments resulting in the hiring of more cooks and reclassification of others for higher pay at a number of sites across the district,” Bellando said. “With the help of Sodexo, we improved the accuracy of our system used to track eligible participation and overall food purchases. Sodexo also provided important site-specific training to all food service employees, school support staff members and administrators.”

Parents’ concerns

What concerns several parents is the board may be getting one-side of the story.

After reading the district’s newsletter about the “revamp of its food service program” and how the “turnaround has been extremely positive,” Scotts Mills parent Courtney Goode turned to Facebook to garner other parents’ feedback. On Silverton Connections, she posted, “How is the food at your child’s school this year? Are your lunch numbers going up? Just looking for polite opinions, please.”

More than 25 people responded with comments ranging from their child eats the school lunches but comes home hungry to “my kids won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.”

“My son packs a lunch as much as possible since he really dislikes the hot lunches. We were really surprised when we learned how he felt about them since, having spent much of his childhood in an orphanage, he is the least picky eater we know,” Carol Samojluk Silcox wrote.

Amber Stutzman wrote she agrees with everyone who commented the quality of food is not the kitchen staff’s fault.

“The fault is in the food quality, when it is made and how long it has to sit,” she wrote.

“Our kids are at Silver Crest and totally dislike the lunches, ‘rubber pizza, soggy sandwiches, wilted lettuce’ on and on – and they didn’t complain until they changed the program.

“Our older two kids are at the high school and they say they have more choices and it isn’t too bad, but since they bring the food into Silver Crest, maybe it sits too long, not sure?”

The district has claimed it is using more local food. Goode questions if all food is local and fresh.

She added she watched a school board meeting where it was clarified that local means either grown; grown and processed; or just processed in Oregon.

“The kids I have spoken to do not like the food, including my own, so I pack them lunches every day and the numbers are not up at the school my kids attend,” Goode said.

She said portion sizes are the same for the kindergärtners through the eighth grade students.

Goode wanted to learn what others thought after she emailed her opinions to the school board. The response she received from the superintendent “was that of surprise.”

“(He) stated I was the only person to voice a complaint,” she said.

On Facebook, she didn’t state her own opinion about the district’s food program. Instead, she asked others if they had read the newsletter article on the food services and what they thought.

Goode said she wants community members to know that “Sodexo is a large company that is capable of filling out the paperwork in order to make sure our lunch program is legal by federal standards.

“Although this is helpful for our district, I worry that it is at the expense of quality food that our kids will actually eat,” she said.

Goode recalled when a year ago the food services staff approached the school board with its concerns about choosing Sodexo to manage the program.

“I thought they made great points and was very disappointed when their concerns were not taken seriously,” Goode said. “I would encourage the school board to listen to what they have to say before taking the easy route.”

About a dozen people contacted said they perceive a problem in communicating with school board members. Emails to the board first go to the superintendent’s office, then are forwarded to board members.

If citizens want to contact a Silverton City Council member, for example, the email goes directly to the councilor’s city email address.
The numbers

Steve Nielsen, the district’s business manager, said before the district hired Sodexo, it didn’t know its cost per meal. Meals are now based on a fixed amount of $2.10 per meal served.

Lunch costs to the students are $2.55 for elementary; $3 for middle school and $3.25 for high school students.

For the 2014-15 fiscal year, the district’s food service budget ended in the red by about $49,000, Nielsen said.

He estimates this year there will be a deficit of about $20,000 to $25,000. He said it would have been closer to $30,000 to $35,000 if the district had not received a $10,000 grant.

One advantage of having the management company is it helps the district find and apply for grants, Nielsen said.

“We wouldn’t have the grant if it weren’t for the management company,” he said.

Another advantage of having Sodexo manage the district’s food programs is there is district-wide compliance with federal laws, Nielsen said, including serving sizes and nutrition guidelines.

He said about three or four years ago the district was fined for not meeting federal guidelines. The Oregon Department of Education did an audit of the district’s food service program this school year and although the district had a few minor things to fix, there were no fines, Nielsen said. This is an additional savings to the district, he said.

Nielsen said he knows the number of meals sold are “up for some schools and some are down.”

When asked for exact numbers of meals sold at each school, both Nielsen and the superintendent said the report from Sodexo does not provide school-specific numbers, only district participation numbers.

Suanne Earle, a Sodexo employee, is the food service director for the Silver Falls School District. She reported when the program was operated by the district from September 2014 to February 2015 – 109 service days – there were 128,231 lunch meals served, or a daily average participation of 1,176.

From September 2015 to February 2016 – 104 service days – there were 124,827 lunch meals served, or 1,200 average daily participation.

“That is an increase of 24 meals per day, equaling a monthly average increase of approximately 480 meals,” Earle wrote.

When comparing the total food service revenue from July to February, the total revenue for 2015-16 is $552,445 compared to $599,341 for 2014-15, $46,896 less.  This year the district received $17,893 in state reimbursements compared with $3,357 for the same period last year.

In 2014-15 year-to-date, the net loss for the food service program was $6,139 compared with a net gain of $7,957 for this year.
Employees’ concerns 

“There are always two-sides to every story and this is definitely the situation here,” said an employee who asked not to be identified, adding employees are fearful to speak out about the food service program because they are “afraid of being moved to a different kitchen, demoted or being disciplined for minor things.”

Another person familiar with the food service program before and after the Sodexo contract agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity.

The person said the quality of the food is slightly less, noting produce is delivered on Friday, to be used the following week.

“There are less choices for produce and very limited items for the salad bar,” the person said. “The quality of the produce is definitely less than what it was. The entrées are about the same.”

The food services staff is working twice as hard to prepare the food and complete required paperwork, the person said, adding some employees complete paperwork during their off hours.

“There are now too many choices for entrées and at some schools more food is being thrown away.”

The main concern, the person added, is not being able to access a financial report on how much is spent on the food program each month and how much money is made.

“That report should be a public document but it is not being made available.”

Overall, the number of lunches sold are down, the person estimates.

There is a lot of prepackaged food being used, despite claims it is not, the person added. “I don’t like to see the food we are serving because it is so industrialized.”

It’s one thing to be told what’s happening and another to see what’s happening, the interviewee said, suggesting board members visit schools and talk with staff.

“I think the board thinks the food services staff is happy with the changes and it is not complaining. The food services staff is afraid to speak up because of what could happen, like being moved to another school. I think there is a lack of information being provided.

Parents should know the food services staff cares about the students, the person said.

“We have learned some things from Sodexo, but I know we could manage the food services program without them.”

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