WESTMINSTER -- Complaints from students about their cafeteria food are about as old as school lunches themselves: Youngsters in middle and high school can be picky eaters and many are set in their nutritional ways.
There is now a national effort to make school meals healthier and more appealing to children, but a female student at Bellows Falls Union High School recently wrote to the Reformer with a gripe about the quality and freshness of her cafeteria food.
Great strides have been made across the country in the short time since I graduated high school so I accepted an invitation from Chef Joseph Gerardi to drive up to BFUHS and try some grub for myself on Wednesday.
Gerardi is the food service director for the Rockingham School District and an employee of The Abbey Group, which designs the food programs of numerous schools, including BFUHS. He is quick to greet the photographer and me with a strong handshake and a big smile. He wears a black company chef coat as he buzzes around the school's kitchen but takes time out of his busy day to give me a tour of his workplace.
Gerardi starts off by walking me past the veggie bar, which includes lettuce and all the fixings for a salad. He says the idea to put the bar and the food trays at the entryway is to encourage students to fill up on vegetables before searching out the heartier items. He says he is already seeing results, as more high schoolers who once detested vegetables have started stockpiling carrots and onions.
Cabbage is the vegetable of the month.
The entree today is stuffed bread rolls, known in some circles as stromboli, and students can choose between buffalo chicken or ham-and-cheese. There are also peas available and a nice-looking deli bar where meat sandwiches are made to order on whole-wheat bread. Before heading to a cash register, high schoolers also have a chance to take some soup and rolls and perhaps a parfait meal before selecting a beverage.
What I see here bears little resemblance to what I remember from my high school cafeteria, where I'm pretty sure I ate yesterday's french fries and semi-frozen Smucker's Uncrustables.
The sample of soup and the bread roll were tasty, but I came to try out the entrees. I showed up after the first lunch period, so I'll be dining alone today. I took a tray and put together a nice salad with black olives (my favorite), tomatoes and onions before opting for one buffalo chicken stromboli. I then selected one piece of cheese pizza (which was item of concern for the student who messaged the Reformer). The young woman claimed the pizza was a day old and had cheese melted on top to make it appear fresh. Gerardi says the pizza is made fresh each day with whole wheat dough. The slice I chose looked great and I did not see any of questionable integrity.
I got a small container of Italian salad dressing and asked for a bottle of water before taking a seat at a table. The salad was of good quality and the dressing went perfectly with the veggies. I thought the stromboli was scrumptious, and at just the right temperature, and the pizza was definitely acceptable. No complaints here.
Gerardi worked a Twin Valley High School in Wilmington until accepting the job offer at BFUHS. He's clearly enthusiastic about his job -- food isn't just a job for him, it's his life. He told me the students can take unlimited veggies and fruit and the standards for meats and grains were relaxed by the United States Department of Agriculture, which provides federal guidelines for daily nutritional minimums and maximums.
"People are used to a four-ounce roll or a four-ounce bagel. Now, in order to offer the deli every single day in an open setting like this, where they have their choices, all of a sudden that roll went from four ounces to two ounces (to meet the required 10 ounces per week)," he says. "That's one of the biggest challenges."
He seemed particularly passionate about the piping-hot vegetable soup and whole wheat rolls, as he ripped one open to smell it.
"Oh, I love that," he says.
Once students collect their food, they go to one of two cash registers. They punch in their student identification number, which brings up their account and informs the cashier if the individual qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Gerardi says there are a lot of kids with free or reduced lunch at BFUHS.
He says each student can get soup, salad, a deli sandwich, milk and a piece of fruit for $2.
The school has serves three major lunches (11:23 a.m. to a.m. to 11:45 a.m., 12:08 p.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 12:53 p.m. to 1:15 p.m.), one for the technical school, a breakfast from 7:30 to 8:30 and a half-hour snack period.
Gerardi, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, says he and his staff take a lot of flak from students who expect more or get busted trying to cheat the system. He says he has caught about 12 children stealing food items in the past three weeks, which results in a private conversation with the chef. He also says some students get upset if their friends have the money to purchase extras -- or à la carte items -- like frozen yogurt or chips and they don't.
"Kids in high school are able to work and make money. They take that money and what do they do? They come over and they are able to buy à la carte items (if they have a positive balance of their account)," he says.
"Some kids don't think it's fair that they can't buy what their friend is buying," he added. "But my friend has a Mercedes -- I don't."
This is The Abbey Group's second year at BFUHS and Gerardi says Vermont is a leader in nutritional school meals.
He says the federal government has also learned the importance and has accepted the fact that it costs more. Gerardi says programs that submit their guidelines to the government and adhere to all the guidelines receive 6 cents back per meal to help offset costs.
He says it is vital for the United States to take juvenile nutrition more seriously, citing the high obesity and diabetes rates. He also says it is important to start at an early age.
"My 5-year-old, she is the first one to reach healthy food because, since pre-K, her school has been doing it," he says. "My 15-year-old is the first to reach for the junk food -- the chicken nuggets and the french fries and a soda. My other daughter won't touch them. It's already been instilled in her at the age of 5."
Jill Smith, Gerardi's colleague at Leland & Gray Union Middle/High School in Townshend, says the school did not have a hot lunch program before The Abbey Group got there about six years ago. She says the school offers two lunches per day (and a breakfast) and she has worked a lot on portion sizes. She also mentions the pizza made fresh every day and roast beef, ham and turkey sandwiches from the deli.
Brattleboro Union High School's food program is administered by Cafe Services, which is headquartered in Londonderry, N.H. Field Supervisor John Veeser was unsure how long his company has worked with BUHS but says there are always challenges with taking on a new school because the students are sometimes reluctant to try healthier food.
He says John Ayer is the Cafe Services director at BUHS and is one of the best directors company-wide. He says they both work very closely with the Windham County Farm to School program to ensure healthy and locally-grown food for the high schoolers. The homemade items, he says, include a raspberry-chocolate chip muffin and soups that are not loaded with sodium and fats like the canned stuff.
"I didn't grow up wealthy. I know mac and cheese and Ramen noodles are cheap to make and cheap at the grocery store," he says. "It's very sad that the food that is easiest to get and the most cost-efficient is not always the best for you."
He says each meal costs roughly $2.50 and called it "healthy lunch that meets a budget."
Veeser says it has been great to see the increased nutritional value of high school food have a ripple effect, as many students try healthy foods at school and then request it from their parents at the supermarket.
Chef Preston Nicholas, one of Gerardi's staff members at Bellows Falls, says students' interest in healthier options has definitely increased a great deal.
"In the beginning, I noticed kids weren't getting salads or vegetables. They are now. It seems to be helping," he tells me, standing in the school's 900-square-foot kitchen. "We're always encouraging the kids. They'll say they want the peas. We'll say, ‘Come on, try. Just try them.'"
Nicholas, the former head chef and food service manager at Goddard College in Plainsfield, says he has about a 40-percent success rate right now. He says many kids are surprised themselves when they realize they like the taste of something they've never tried.
Gerardi and Nicholas work with Donna Connor, Kathy Amidon, Megan Lawhorne and Rita Fletcher. Gerardi says he also has three workers at Central School, three at Bellows Falls Middle School, two in Saxtons River and one in Grafton.
Fletcher says he has seen more and more kids opt for healthy foods in the short time she's worked here.
"The kids don't tend to take as much of the junk because they see the nutritional value of the other stuff that's out there," she says, taking a break from her work in the cleaning room. "They really like the (veggie) bar because they get their pick. It's not like you've got to have cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes. You get a variety ... and they love that."
I would have, too. I can tell you that much.