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By Carmen Ensinger
Members of the North Greene School Board had the opportunity to sample the selections that the students of the district were being served for breakfast and lunch before the Sept. 21 board meeting.
The district opted to go with Organic Life, LLC food service this year as opposed to cooking the meals themselves. The difference between providing the meals themselves and hiring them out is approximately $100,000.
The meals are still cooked on the premises, but Organic Life provides the food and the employees that prepare and serve the food. Last year, the purchase of food cost the district roughly $400,000. Add in the salary and benefits of the workers, which is around $200,000 and it cost the district right at $600,000 for the district to operate the program.
The district received only two bids to provide food service and food management services to the district – one from Opaa Food Management, which supplies food service to Jerseyville in the amount of $788,954.27 and Organic Life whose bid was $699,356.24, a difference of $89,598.03.
According to Superintendent Mark Scott, Opaa actually had the lower bid per unit for both breakfast and lunch, but when they figured in the fresh fruit and vegetable program, Opaa bid it at $3.98 per unit and Organic Life bid it at $1 per unit.
With 31,940 units of fruits and vegetables expected to be served, this $3 difference added an additional $95,820 to Opaa’s bid.
At the time the board made the decision, under the Illinois Statute, the district had to go with the low bid for food service, even though they felt more comfortable with Opaa, who is based out of Chesterfield, Mo.
Later in the board meeting, Organic Life Vice President of Operations Jose Gutteriez and North Greene District Manager Michelle Kitchen addressed the board about their performance to date and any concerns they might have one month into their one year contract with the district.
Board member Casey Kallal came prepared for the meeting with the two. She had with her a handful of letters from students about the service – nearly all of them complaints. She explained that they originally asked the students to comment on the food to find out what it was they liked about it – not what was so wrong with it.
She also had a stick of photos of less than palatable dishes that were on student’s trays. Not being one to just take someone’s word, she has made several visits to the cafeteria during lunch time as well. Her last visit was the day before the board meeting.
“I have to say that I was there yesterday and the taco meat looked really good and everything looked nice,” she said. “The fresh vegetables and the salad bar looked nice as well. One problem I do see is only having the little packets of ranch dressing.”
But, she added that upon asking some of the students about some of their other meals, their response wasn’t as favorable.
“The typical response was that today wasn’t bad but there are lots of days where my meat is cold and one kid handed me, out of his spicy chicken wrap, a piece of his meat and said he couldn’t eat it,” Kallal said. “He told me to squeeze it. I did and it was completely frozen in the middle. He said he couldn’t eat it because it was frozen and it was. Are we reusing meat?”
Kallal then moved to the photos she had provided.
“This photo is of a burger that someone gave me – look how small that is. Is that really enough meat to feed a person,” she asked. “This piece of meat looks frozen and this chicken was rubbery. This was supposed to be a meatball sub that had nothing on it and they said it was very dry and was on a hot dog bun. This piece of meat doesn’t look like it was cooked all the way through. This burger looked like it had been reheated 85 times and the kid picked it up and banged it on the table and it was like a hockey puck. This is not acceptable.”
Guttierez agreed that the above situations were indeed unacceptable
“I want to clarify that we do not reheat any of our sandwiches or our meats,” he said. “That does not happen. If there is any chicken that is left, it gets cooled down and used in a wrap. It is a way to eliminate waste but we only do it if we can keep the integrity of the food.
“The elimination of waste is one thing that the Illinois State Board of Education looks for in your audit so we are only trying to help you out. We may need to keep working with our staff to make sure they understand and look out for quality. I agree that what you have shown is unacceptable.”
Guttierez said perhaps the staff needs further training
“It is part of the process to have our corporate checkers here to work with the staff at both levels to make sure we are training and retraining them on the proper cooking procedures and holding procedures,” he said. “You can cook broccoli the same way for 20 years, but we can show them a way to cook it to where it will look and taste better so it doesn’t look like it does in the picture you have there. Appearance and presentation is half the goal. If it looks bad, even though it might taste good, most of the time a kid is not going to even try it.”
District bookkeeper Tiffany Mumford asked what they did with leftovers if they are not reheating them.
“The reason I ask is that, especially at the high school level, we have kids that are starving,” she said. “When I say starving, I mean no electricity poor, and I know previously when there were leftovers at the last lunch period if there was anything left, they were left out and the kids were allowed to come up and get them as opposed to throwing them away.”
Guttierez said something like that could be done in the district.
“One of the things that some districts are doing is called a ‘sharing table’”, he said. “Obviously, it could only be items that are shelf stable, like a piece of fruit or something. I would love to put out a chicken sandwich but if it sits out too long and they throw it in their backpack and it it at 8 p.m. that night they could get sick and that is a risk we are not willing to take and I’m sure you are not either. But there are many items we could still repurpose.”
Another issue that needs addressed is the efficiency in which the students are being served. Students have a 30-minute lunch hour and there are a lot of students to be served in that short amount of time.
“When I was there yesterday, I definitely thought that efficiency needs to be worked on,” Kallal said. “The workers were a little slow and I think that is where you (pointing to Kitchen) need to step in as food director. You should be out there helping them serve if they are getting behind with a long line. I think that is part of what your job should be.”
Kallal said she looked very closely through their proposal and one of the things about it that stuck out was that they requested feedback.
“When we asked for these letters, we wanted the students to know that their voices mattered – it wasn’t done to be negative,” she said. “It was actually supposed to be a positive reinforcement for change and it ended up that they just weren’t happy. It is hard for change – I get that. The meal yesterday was good and tonight’s meal looked good. But some of these kids aren’t getting a decent meal. The hamburger shouldn’t be a hockey puck.”
Discussion was held about setting up a resident council made up of board members, students and members of the staff to work on any issues that might arise about the food, service or any other issues.