By Claire Walla
In between lunch periods, when the Pierson High School cafeteria was in a relative lull, three parent volunteers placed small plastic cups up in single-file lines on top of a folding table in a corner of the room. They then filled the bottoms of the cups with cherry lemonade and apple-grape-flavored juice, branded Planet Fuel. When the students stormed in for their mid-day meal, they flocked to the folding table to sample the new beverage.
“This is my favorite one!” beamed Isabelle Peters who had plastered her face with Planet Fuel temporary tattoos before gulping down the cherry lemonade-flavored liquid.
Hannah Jungck, who said chocolate milk is usually her beverage of choice, claimed the cherry lemonade juice wasn’t too sweet, “which is a good thing.”
Last week’s taste test came by way of the Sag Harbor School District’s Wellness Committee, which is working with the school to bring healthier food options to the Pierson cafeteria. This juice, produced in nearby Connecticut, is served in recyclable aluminum bottles and boasts less sugar per serving than “regular fruit juice.”
Wellness committee and school board member Mary Anne Miller said it gives kids a healthier option than many of the sugar-filled beverages currently available for students, such as Snapple, Anti-Oxidant Water and chocolate milk.
However, she added, it’s often difficult to get healthier options into the school.
Sag Harbor School District Business Manager Janet Verneuille said the school has made waves since September. It’s purged the halls of unhealthy vending machine foods, instead offering students options like vegetables and hummus through vending machines supplied by a company called Nutrikids. The cafeteria also now has a steamer in order to prepare foods in a more healthy way.
Plus, just last week Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto announced that Pierson won a $3,000 grant from Whole Foods for a salad bar.
Though administrators said they are making strides toward improving the nutritional value of food at the school, Verneuille noted the school still buys products from vendors listed on the state contract which are often less healthy than more local options because “purchasing goods throughout the state contract streamlines the purchasing process and in most cases saves money, as well.”
New York public schools are given the option of buying goods off the state contract, which is fairly straight forward. However, for products not part of this contact — like locally grown and produced goods — the school must find exceptions to the rule.
“In the case of Planet Fuel, we considered the product as a ‘sole source vendor,’ which is another set of rules under the law,” Verneuille wrote in an email. Typically, if the school wants to buy a product that is not on the state contract it must collect bids from two other companies, then purchase the product with the lowest cost. But products that are categorized as “sole source vendor” may skip that step.
Although Verneuille added that “relatively few purchases for the district meet the criteria as ‘sole source’ under the law,” she said the school will continue to work to bring locally grown products into the cafeteria — a goal the wellness committee is working hard to achieve.
Verneuille noted that Pierson suffered a minor bump in the road at the beginning of the school year when the cafeteria’s manager suddenly quit a few weeks into the semester, but now that his replacement, Greg Pisciotta, has been on the job for about a month, Verneuille said the school will pick up momentum once again.
“Over time [Pisciotta] will take a more active role in the wellness aspects of the menu,” Verneuille added.
She and Miller both hope the district will be able to find exceptions to the state’s purchasing rules. While Verneuille is not sure, at this point, whether or not she will be able to find exceptions that comply “legally, operationally and financially,” she said this is an issue the district will probably begin to tackle in the coming months.
“We’re lucky to live in a region [with so much local produce],” Miller said. Instead trucking in fruit from hundreds of miles away, she added, “Wouldn’t it be great to be able to get apples from Halsey Farms?”