Hendry County students to enjoy free breakfast, lunch

When students all over Hendry County return to the classroom August 10 they’ll be welcomed by their new teachers, friends they haven’t seen over the summer and free food!

Beginning this school term, all Hendry County students enrolled in public schools will be eligible to receive free lunch and breakfast, but there will be no forms to make out at the beginning of the year.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Puletti said this is what the district was working toward for the past few months. He is certain that students and cafeteria workers alike will be pleased.

He said the district will qualify for this Department of Agriculture program as long as the county has enough residents on certain federal aid programs.

This term will be the first under a new system with a company called Sodexo overseeing the district’s lunch rooms. Last school term was chaotic for lunch room employees who were afraid of what these changes would mean for their jobs and skeptical of promises of better food for the kids. The year was marred by lunch room employees picketing against the district’s idea to contract out school lunches and many were angry when the school board voted to enter a contract with Sodexo, which took over the food service July 1.

However, Mr. Puletti was always convinced the new arrangement was the way to go and is even more certain as the company took over July 1, that it will be good for all concerned.

A 50 percent food waste issue, resulting in kids not eating lunch and wasted money, brought about the change to an outside manager. Sodexo which handles meals for some 400 schools along with the contract for Disney World and also just received one for the US House of Representatives, won the contract. Obviously, Hendry County School District’s contract does not compare with these two world class food servers, but the company has the experience to make local food service work.

Through this entire process, the district is not replacing one employee, a food service clerk who is retiring.

The District needs a ten percent increase in student lunch participation to work.

Food Service Manager for eight years, Darrell Harris retired as of June 30 after 28 years with the school district and Erwin T. Evans, Sr., has been placed as Sodexo’s interim Food Service Manager. He has 12 years experience in food service, most of it with school systems in the Carolinas and Georgia. He will begin training, bringing in uniforms for cafeteria workers and starting off the year with an employee picnic. The district will also have a dietitian for the first time.

The district expects that, with the new management, food providers and menus all students will eat lunch. What was needed was the leadership and access to the right food vendors to conform to updated federal nutritional regulations. Or course, these will not be five star meals, but they should appeal to the kids and be healthy. They will be hot, healthy meals, cooked meals on premises. These will be appealing menus devised by executive chefs with improved appearance and taste cooked from recipes that fulfill the federal guidelines.

Students will also be able to pay for ala cart items at separate stations set up in lunch rooms. They will begin with six choices at both LaBelle and Clewiston High Schools that will gradually increase to 12 as the kids’ favorites emerge; some items will be rotated so the kids don’t get tired of them. The district’s middle schoolers will start with two or three choices and build up to four or five. A la carte meals for elementary students will only be available at Country Oaks to begin with, and they will be very limited.

Breakfast could be “grab and go” choices and may be eaten at the bus ramp, cafeteria or classroom, according to each principal’s wishes. Also, other breakfast choices will be available in the lunch room.

School Board CFO Michael Yanosik is confident that “there will be a tremendous improvement on Day 1.”

Federal changes to school lunch menus reflecting improved nutrition left local school lunch rooms at a disadvantage because Hendry County schools did not have the necessary equipment and recipes to conform to the updates. It left lunch room workers having to serve, and students expected to eat, unpalatable food. Without the expertise the district needed to fill new federal nutrition guidelines, Mr. Puletti said the School district has done a good job with the equipment available.

Now Sodexo has come in with some new equipment that will allow the districts lunch rooms to fulfill those requirements. The company is bringing in some $75,000 worth of new equipment, well within the school lunch account’s budget, the superintendent said. They are not using general school funds or ad valorem taxes.

Three Sodexo employees and three district level employees will make up a committee to oversee the program.
Hendry County School District needs 130,000 meal equivalents to recoup the $250,000 loss in local revenue those students who paid for lunch.

The district must pay Sodexo $2.85 per meal equivalent, a complicated calculation based on values assigned to lunch (one meal equivalent), breakfast (.66) and a snack (.33).

“Now,” Mr. Puletti said, “this is doable.” For him the bottom line is easy: When students are not hungry, they can concentrate more on their studies.

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