Lunch Program Back In, With Changes to Come
By Marissa Maier
Sag Harbor School superintendent Dr. John Gratto confirmed on Wednesday that when the school opens its doors on September 13, there will be a cafeteria program in operation. For the past few months, the board has wrestled with the idea of temporarily suspending the cafeteria program, citing running deficits, in order to investigate more fiscally self-sustaining options. After forming a committee, Dr. Gratto appeared to take the lead on the issue and hired an outside consultant to conduct a report on the program and make recommendations to improving revenues. Analyzing the cafeteria program over a roughly two week period of time, Susan Merims completed a report last week, which was subsequently posted to the school’s website.
School board president Walter Wilcoxen called Merim’s work a template for the school, which will become the standard for assessing the program. Merim’s recommendations were numerous, and included new menu options, but Dr. Gratto chose to a present a few highlights at a school board meeting on Monday, August 23.
One of her chief suggestions was purchasing a new point-of-sale system to provide accurate accounting. The district is in the midst of purchasing such software, which Merims priced at around $8,000 to $10,000, though Dr. Gratto believes it will cost the district closer to $5,000 and will be implemented in six weeks or less from the opening of school. Additionally, she mentioned implementing a no-charge policy in the district and said a new POS system would help parents pre-pay for meals. Dr. Gratto said the board has decided to enact a no-charge policy beginning this school year.
Merims recommended buying trays made out of biodegradable sugar cane to replace both the reusable trays and foam plates. In order to encourage increased sales, she suggested improving the presentation of food, shortening in-line waiting time through hiring two part time cashiers, offering hot breakfast items, including more promotional and ethnic days, and offering more homemade soups, salads and other low-fat selections. Merims advised the school to buy a microwave and steam cooker to be able to continue serving hot food items, while upholding county health department requirements.
She noted the school should retain a cook and assistant food service worker, whose contracts were renewed on Monday evening, but doesn’t need to fill a vacant third position of manager. Instead a food service consultant will be hired to come oversee the program a few hours every week. In addition, Merims wrote that the school could create a “grab-and-go” bag lunch, which students could pre-order, introduce bottle water at the elementary school, cater class parties, sports dinners, PTA functions and other community events, and install vending machines, which Merims believed would boost revenues by $10,000.
Dr. Gratto said he is still working on bringing vending machines carrying natural and organic products into the school. Additional revenues of around $22,000 would be generated through raising the prices of green box, pop-tarts, bottled water and elementary school milk from 15 to 50 cents. Throughout her report, Merims mentioned that she wasn’t able to weigh in on certain aspects of the program because she didn’t have the chance to see the cafeteria in operation during the school year. She also added that some of the data regarding the program seemed incomplete.
Some board members noted that they didn’t expect Merims to price out every recommendation, like the cashiers or equipment, and said the business office will most likely do that pricing in house. Dr. Gratto added that the school’s new food service consultant will work on finding ways to implement these recommendations.
Wilcoxen said this plan puts the school on better footing, though he would have liked to have seen a full blown plan ahead of implementation. He noted that he put aside his personal view in favor of the other board members and superintendent’s opinion, saying that he “didn’t want to hold up the process” of getting a program off the ground.
“I’m optimistic. I am pleased with the direction that we are moving in,” school board member Chris Tice remarked. “I think the additional focus and resources [described in Merim’s plan] will help make it a more successful program for students and for the community.” Board member Gregg Schiavoni similarly noted that he was in favor of beginning the program with some kind of food program in place.
Board member Mary Anne Miller noted that she would also have liked to have seen a fully vetted and completed plan before implementing a new program into the schools, though she was pleased with the results of Merim’s work.
“I could be swayed to open with the status quo and implement many new things as we evolve over the weeks,” Miller noted. “It is unfortunate to have to open without a POS system.” Miller recalled a parent saying at a previous board meeting that the district should take their time to “do it right,” meaning creating a new food program.
Wilcoxen noted that the board will most likely revisit the operations of the cafeteria program after the holiday vacation in January.
The Price of Milk
As part of her recommendations, Merims suggested raising the price of elementary school milk from 15 to 50 cents. Tice objected to such a steep price increase, before assistant elementary school principal Donna Denon pointed out that a letter had already been sent out to district parents listing the price of milk at 15 cents. In a later interview, Tice said the school had already committed to this price and should only look at tweaking this in the next school year. On Monday evening, the board believed they had to vote on the price of milk to be eligible for subsidies that night. After the vote was called and the prices were set, at 15 cents for elementary and 50 cents for Pierson, Verneuille noted the board wasn’t obliged to make that vote. Wilcoxen believes the pricing issue will be revisited at a later date.