Superintendent’s column: Hammond fights odds to feed kids
Michelle Hammond is a local hero in the fight against hunger. As the food services director for the Roaring Fork Schools, she is fighting against unbelievable odds.
Michelle and her team are charged with meeting the nutritional needs of our students through the breakfast and lunch programs in 13 schools. It is becoming increasingly difficult to provide healthy meals — which research shows will increase academic engagement, positive behaviors, and student wellness — due to a critical labor shortage, decreased program enrollment, and the innumerable federal mandates with which the program must comply.
Michelle knows the importance of providing healthy meals in schools. She had an indigent childhood and took advantage of school meals when she could. Her experiences gave her empathy for our highest need students. “I know what it is to be homeless as a child, not to have dinner as a child, and we don’t know where these kiddos are coming from. It shouldn’t matter — we should be able to provide them with the best.”
Even as a kid, she says, “I would go out and serve the homeless every holiday and school break.” That passion has translated to feeding all the kids in the valley, which she has been doing for 23 years in food services, the past of 11 of them as the director. “It brings such joy knowing that they can get a hot lunch.”
Michelle’s department is part of the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal program operating under the guidance of the federal government since 1946. Participating school districts receive cash subsidies for each reimbursable meal they serve, and in exchange, schools must comply with a vast and complicated set of regulations.
Things got more complicated in 2012 when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was instituted to reduce the level of childhood obesity and encourage healthier eating habits. The act requires more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; limits sodium and fat content; and specifies the number of calories served. This is all great, but the net effects on the food services program have been more costs, more paperwork, more food waste, and, ironically, fewer homegrown and home-cooked meals. And partly because the lower salt, lower fat meals are out of line with typical American eating habits, kids aren’t participating as much in the meal program.
It’s impossible to explain the complexities of the program guidelines, but Michelle gave some examples:
- School lunches for grades K-5 must contain between 550 and 650 calories, and lunches for grades 6-8 between 600 and 700. For our schools with both 5th and 6th graders, lunches have to contain between precisely 600 and 650 calories.
- Each meal must contain a cup of milk, one half cup of fruit, three quarters cup of vegetables, one ounce of grains, and one ounce of meat or a meat alternative. There must be two choices each of grains and meats. Each meal must contain less than 1,230mg of sodium.
- Students must take the entire meal, whether or not they plan to eat it all, so much of it ends up in the trash.
Michelle uses factory apportioned menu items because their calculations are precise. “If we were to make home-made recipes with local ingredients, we wouldn’t be able to calculate the components with the required accuracy.” Michelle tells of the time when, “The auditor came in and weighed the rolls on the food trays to make sure they were in the allowable range.”
An even bigger problem than the Rubik’s cube of regulations for Michelle is that the costs of the program don’t match the reimbursement rates, which are the same across the country and make no adjustment for cost of living, local labor markets, availability of fresh fruits and vegetables, or proximity to food distributors.
Labor costs are much higher in our valley than in other parts of the state, and Michelle struggles to compete with other local employers. As a school district, we are forced to pay an additional 20% for public employee retirement, putting us at a further disadvantage. Milk, fruits, and vegetables are more expensive here, and because there is only one state-approved dairy distributor, they charge more than regions with more competition.
For these reasons, the program operates at a net loss of about $225,000 per year.
According to Michelle, “The biggest problem is staffing because, with such a high turnover rate, there is constant training on a very complex program.” Therefore, Michelle spends most of her energy supporting her team. It’s no wonder that, when we polled them about what they appreciate most about their jobs, the number one response was “Michelle.”
Michelle, herself, is working seven days a week, spending 50% of her time this fall cooking and serving meals to offset the staff shortages, and the rest of her time completing the excessive paperwork required by The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act.
“It absolutely breaks my heart,” she says, that the district has had to reduce food service in two schools due to staff shortages and low meal participation. We are looking for creative ways, while working within the guidelines, to restore programming to all schools and to increase student participation in the meal program. “It’s a basic need,” says Michelle. “That should never be a discussion.”
Rob Stein is superintendent of Roaring Fork Schools.
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