Roaring Fork Schools looking for solutions to make food services more sustainable
Eating school lunch is a practical matter for Glenwood Springs High School junior Grace Hall.
She has a job and pays for her own gas and upkeep on a car.
And, she admits her parents have agreed to pay the relatively nominal fee for her to stay on campus and eat in the school cafeteria.
“I kind of look at it as, would I rather go out to eat five times a week and spend that money? Or, do I have my lunch paid for and spend my money on better things,” Hall said.
Fellow senior Karla Trejo agrees. But that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be some improvements in the school lunch offerings, she said.
“The school food is pretty good, but they could definitely change up some things and make them better,” Trejo said. “I do think that they’re decent for people who don’t have the opportunity to go buy food, or don’t have time to make themselves food.”
But Hall and Trejo are in the very small minority among the nearly 1,000 students who attend Glenwood High.
According to Roaring Fork School District Food Services Director Michelle Hammond, only about 40 students per day participate in either the breakfast or lunch program at the school.
In September, the district suspended the breakfast program at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale and at Basalt High School due to a combination of low participation and difficulty filling food service jobs.
Come lunch time in Glenwood, most high school students are piling into cars to go grab lunch at one of the local fast-food restaurants, or filing across Grand Avenue in droves to pick up something quick at the City Market grocery store.
“It’s better food … you can choose whatever you want,” said sophomore Sophia Mohl as she made the midday trek.
Senior Hunter Behnke returned from his City Market visit with a bag of Doritos and a Lunchables pack.
“I just like the grocery store food better,” he said. “The school lunch just seems fake — the texture, the taste — when you eat it, you’re just kind of settling for it.”
Student Anna Lara said the walk to and from the store also provides a good break, “so I don’t have to be stuck inside school all day.”
Seniors Ashland Stolley and Grant Weimer each picked up a southwestern chicken bowl — and a bag of doughnuts for Weimer to take home later.
“To be entirely honest, it’s cheap, and it’s quick and easy to walk across the street and come back,” Stolley said. “Most days, we do go out and drive to other places, though.”
Added Weimer, “I used to do hot lunches in elementary school …
“I always felt like it was kind of low-quality, like they just threw it in the microwave for 20 seconds or something.”
While participation in the school lunch program remains reasonably high at the elementary and middle school levels, the school district has been wrestling with how to make the district’s food services programs as a whole more sustainable.
Of 5,589 students in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt district schools, approximately 1,800 lunches and 600 breakfasts are served each day.
Many of those meals are provided at reduced rates or free, as 43% of students in the district qualify for free or reduced lunch under the National School Lunch Program.
Since passage of the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act nearly a decade ago, the cost to keep up with all the nutritional and health rules and regulations have ballooned.
The program is now subsidized out of the district’s general fund to the tune of $220,000 a year.
“These are funds that previously would have benefitted district instructional programs,” according to a staff report to the Roaring Fork School board for its Oct. 23 meeting.
Rules prevent school lunches from differentiating between the nutritional needs of high school students versus elementary students, for instance.
And, the portions are “incredibly specific,” the memo noted — each meal is required to contain a cup of milk, a half cup of fruit, three-quarters of a cup of vegetables, 1 ounce of grains and 1 ounce of meat or a meat alternative.
Each meal must also contain less than 1,230 milligrams of sodium.
Complicating matters is the labor situation that contributed to the two breakfast programs being suspended.
The district has 30 food-service workers when fully staffed. As of mid-October, however, the program was down four part-time and two full-time employees, according to the district.
At a starting wage of $14.30 an hour for cooks and $16.86/hour for managers, and with most positions offering only a part-time schedule, filling the positions has been difficult, according to the report.
The district has tried to combine available part-time jobs — for instance food service, bus drivers, building custodians and groundskeepers — into full-time positions, in an effort to make them more attractive and retain workers. But that has had limited success, said Shannon Pelland, chief financial officer for the school district.
On the legislative side, the district may also step up its lobbying efforts to try to lessen the regulatory burden and work around some of the obstacles, Roaring Fork Schools Superintendent Rob Stein said.
Beyond that, “it’s about how creative we can get as a team to approach this,” he said. “That creativity is going to have to come by increasing participation in some way.”
The school board and district administration expect to continue the conversation about how to make food services more cost-effective as the yearly budget talks begin after the first of the year.
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Carbondale Middle School has transitioned most of its fifth grade cohort, including students and teachers, to distance learning for the coming week due to a positive COVID-19 test.