Boston public schools working to upgrade the cafeteria
City is exploring changes in menus, kitchens, and leadership
Hot dogs and fruit juice would disappear from Boston school menus this fall, and chicken breasts and fish would often replace chicken nuggets under proposals by the School Department and a community advisory council to provide students with healthier dining options.
These potential changes are part of a broader effort to overhaul the schools’ food program, school officials said this week. Other changes include hiring a new executive director of food and nutrition service, potentially expanding in-class breakfast to every school in the district, taking a hard look at improving kitchen facilities, and developing a long-term plan for defining and implementing healthy food options.
The possible menu changes “are some baby steps toward a much larger discussion in terms of how we deliver, how we provide, how we support food service,” said Kim Rice, assistant superintendent of operations.
Since the district has not identified all necessary changes, a price tag has not been set.
The proposals, which are being evaluated by school officials, follow a period of rising criticism of the food service by parents, students, and even some employees.
An external review last year found widespread dysfunction in the food program that was leading to millions of dollars in annual losses and creating an apparent “hostile work environment” for workers.
More recently, in April, the district slashed some food options at all schools, but those with cafeterias saw the largest reduction in variety to save money, drawing complaints from parents.
Under those changes, dishes such as chicken broccoli pasta and a garden salad with chick-pea and cheese came off menus. Hot breakfast was reduced to two days a week, and 37 food service workers lost their jobs.
The district has proposed restoring some menu items that were cut in the spring, said Deborah Ventricelli, the deputy director of the district’s Food and Nutrition Services Department, but she noted that no menu changes are final.
Menu changes, such as replacing fruit juice with actual fruit, would eliminate empty calories and sugar, officials said.
Heshan Berents-Weeramuni, one of the cochairs of the citywide parent council, praised the proposed changes.
“I commend [Boston public schools] for that, for listening to the very involved, and very vast amount of input that they’ve had from parents and other community members,” said Berents-Weeramuni. “I look forward to the positive proposals being implemented.”
School officials say they must balance healthy food, student preferences, and fiscal concerns. The trio of responsibilities, which often tug administrators in opposing directions, makes progress slow, officials said.
“You have to go slow to go fast,” said Christy Mach Dubé director of the Eos Foundation, which is providing grants to the district to improve food services. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
In the meantime, school leaders are making incremental changes. The Eos Foundation is piloting a program in the Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain to fund breakfast in the classrooms. The goal is to increase the number of students eating breakfast, said Andrea Silbert, the president of Eos. While some schools already serve breakfast in classrooms, Silbert said she hopes the policy will soon be districtwide.
The foundation is also assisting Boston in a nationwide search for an executive director of food and nutrition services, as well as providing technical assistance and scouring the nation for best practices, Silbert said.
The crowning transformation in the district’s nutrition project is a long-term plan with the lofty goal of becoming the “best program in the country,” Rice said.
“We are meeting state and federal guidelines, but we want to go beyond that,” Rice said.
This revamp will involve community outreach, reevaluating kitchen space—which is already in the works as the district undertakes a 10-year facilities plan— and defining and eventually implementing what the district considers healthy food.
This month, parents met with school officials and community organizers to help in the effort. Stephanie Shapiro Berkson, a parent who is a part of the Healthy Food for Boston Schools Action Network, a group of parents, educators, and other community members, called the meeting “exciting and encouraging.”
However, not everyone is quite as optimistic. Based on the district’s previous record, Tomas Leyton-Nolan, who works at Sociedad Latina, a youth advocacy organization, is skeptical that Boston is on the brink of a total food transformation. He says he wants the district to be more transparent on the issue.
Parents and administrators stress the importance of providing quality school lunches, particularly for low-income students whose access to food outside school may be limited.
In 2013, the district began serving free lunches to all students in order to eliminate the need for low-income students to fill out paperwork. The previous year, the district began serving free breakfast to all students.
No matter the district’s intentions, the school food program is a recurring budgetary problem, said Sam Tyler, president of Boston Municipal Research Bureau. The district traditionally has had to spend some of its own funds to make the federal program sustainable, he said.
Parents, community organizers, and administrators were encouraged by Superintendent Tommy Chang’s early remarks about his wish to improve the food service. On his first formal day on the job July 1, he heard a group of students disparage the quality of school food.
Chang told students that, he too, had eaten lunch at Boston public schools and said he agrees that something should be done.