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Boston schools vow more healthful meals

Boston contract calls for local food and student input

Boston public school students will enjoy more locally sourced food, participate in quarterly taste tests, and receive a greater say in planning menus as part of a $12.2 million a year food-service contract revealed Tuesday.

Under the deal with Whitsons Culinary Group, the school system will also resume a pilot salad bar project at six schools, said Sam DePina, chief operating officer for student support. The district had faced criticism from parents and staff after shutting down the program last school year.

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“We want to make sure they’re getting the healthiest possible food,” DePina said. “We always knew there was a demand for more local options and salads.”

The contract with New York-based Whitsons, which has been the district’s meals provider for the past three school years, was announced months after a scathing external report commissioned by the School Department revealed widespread dysfunction in the food service program.

According to the review, the program had lost more than $21 million over the past eight years, and some employees complained of a hostile work environment. Whitsons had nothing to do with the issues highlighted in the report, school officials say.

Although its bid was higher than the $11.4 million annual contract proposed by a another vendor, Whitsons’ was ranked better on other criteria by the evaluation committee.

Preferred Meals of Berkeley, Ill., and Revolution Foods of Oakland, Calif., also made bids, and the winner of the three-year agreement was supposed to start serving food for the summer program in July. But in June, interim Superintendent John McDonough asked them to resubmit proposals featuring more healthful options, salads, and locally sourced offerings.

Because of the cost of the salad bars and difficulties meeting state and local health regulations, the food services program quietly had been shutting down the salad bars as it struggled with millions of dollars in financial losses.

This time around, keeping the salad bars stocked is a priority, and an educational component on nutrition will help motivate students to sample the healthful options, DePina said.

As with the earlier pilot program, a federal grant will help pay for the salad bars.

Quarterly taste-tests by students will keep administrators appraised of likes and dislikes.

A council composed of parents, students, and staff members will be set up in the fall to provide input on meal planning, DePina said.

Susan Trotz, a guidance counselor at the Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain, had publicly voiced disapproval after the salad bar program’s cancellation at that school and others. On Tuesday, she said she was “thrilled” the program would be back.

“I think it’s really good as an educational institution that we’re educating our kids, parents, and staff about what healthy eating looks like,” said Trotz, who has served as co-chair of the school’s health and wellness committee. “Kids will develop healthy habits, and isn’t that what school is about?”

Curley parent Carrie Fletcher said her two children, ages 8 and 11, enjoyed the salad bar and would sometimes get their meals there instead of packing lunch. When the program ended last year, they started eating food from home nearly all the time because they didn’t fancy the prepared entrees available, she said.

“They liked the salad bar,” she said. “It’s fun. They pick what they want.”

Although there already is a collaborative spirit to school meals at Curley, Fletcher said, she was glad to hear that parents and students across the city will have a greater say in what’s put on the menu.

Boston Public Schools says it serves approximately 11 million meals a year to more than 57,000 students.

Oliver Ortega can be reached at oliver.ortega@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ByOliverOrtega.
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