By Claire Walla
When the Sag Harbor School Board passed a new Wellness Policy in November, School Board President Mary Anne Miller said the move was not merely meant to remove unhealthy items from the cafeteria.
It presented a sea change for the district.
High-fructose corn syrup? Gone.
Whole milk? No more.
“It’s had to find products with some of the ingredients they don’t want us to have,” said Pierson Middle/High School Cafeteria Manager Greg Pisciotta.
Particularly high-fructose corn syrup.
“If you’ve ever been to a supermarket, then you know it’s everywhere! It took us two weeks to find whole wheat bread without high-fructose corn syrup,” he added.
Already, Pisciotta has rid cafeteria fridges and cupboards of foods containing high fructose corn syrup and non-nutritive sweeteners, as well as hydrogenated and trans fats. At this point, of the roughly 500 food items stored at the school, Pisciotta said there are probably just a handful, now, that contain those ingredients.
“They [the school board] would like us to make more from scratch, but it’s hard with this kitchen,” explained Pisciotta.
The facility only has one oven and a two-tier convection oven for keeping food warm. Pisciotta does not have access to a stovetop, which he said limits his abilities. Though he’s adapted to making certain foods in the oven — boiling pasta, cooking ground meat — the need to reach a viable compromise adds another layer to his job.
Especially since the board is pushing for more meals made from scratch.
“Back before we had to take all of those ingredients out [like high-fructose corn syrup], I had a very, very popular menu,” Pisciotta said.
One top seller was the chicken burrito, which Pisciotta bought pre-made in plastic packaging. He has since had to remove it from the cafeteria because he found it contained high levels of sodium; it’s been replaced by a chicken quesadilla he prepares himself.
Pisciotta has also removed pre-made burgers from the menu and replaced them with homemade pizza, either put together on a sourdough roll or premade pizza dough. Here, he’s even ventured into a menu item he called “salad pizza.”
“It’s just pizza crust with a salad on top,” he said. “A lot of kids get it.”
The cafeteria still carries certain pre-made items, like the cooked chicken used in the quesadilla, but Pisciotta said roughly 75 percent of his monthly menu is now assembled by hand, rather than merely removed from a package, heated and served. (He estimated only half the menu items were prepared by hand before the Wellness Policy was put in place.)
Thus far, the newly revamped menu seems to be doing well.
According to numbers crunched by District Business Manager Janet Verneuille, the district had earned more money in the cafeteria by February of this year than it had by the same time last year.
However, the data also showed more students are buying menu items a la carte — a revenue stream that increased by $26,281 over the same period of time from 2011 to 2012 — rather than purchasing the full meal, which has seen a dip of $10,134 in that same period of time.
“You can make something from scratch and make it as healthy as you want,” Pisciotta added. “But if it’s not going to sell, it’s not going to work.”
School Board President Mary Anne Miller, who was a driving force behind the updated Wellness Policy, realizes the cafeteria can only do so much at this point.
“We need finances to upgrade the facility,” Miller said.
She said she’s been encouraged by the number of parents who have already expressed an interest in donating their time and other resources to helping improve the cafeteria facilities.
However, Miller added, the facility itself is a major hurdle to significant change.
A bond proposal voted down in 2009 but reintroduced by the board this fall (at a price tag of $166,920) maps out several changes for the cafeteria, which Miller said are important for transforming the space for the better.
The current version of the plan, as suggested by the Long Range Planning Committee, would expand the kitchen into the testing room next door, creating more storage space for food.
Though it’s not incorporated into the $166,920 plan, the idea has also been floated to install an exhaust system, which would allow the district to install a stovetop. That would give Pisciotta the ability to cook a much wider variety of foods.
“We want to look at this not just as a cafeteria, but as another gathering space for the district,” Miller explained.
As she sees it, these cafeteria upgrades could even make the space more conducive for community gatherings and demonstrations, and give the district itself a better facility for teaching health and nutrition programs.
Because the district only has about 4 percent of its student body taking advantage of the free-and-reduced lunch program, Miller said a full service cafeteria is not a necessity.
“The cafeteria is a convenience facility,” she added. “That said, if we could improve the facility and more fully integrate curriculum, giving kids more hands-on life experience with food and nutrition, then I think it’s a good endeavor.”
As for Pisciotta, he said he would continue to produce the best quality food with the space, equipment and budget he’s allowed.
“I can only do so much, I’m pretty clear about that,” he added. “There’s only so much cooking-from-scratch I can do with an oven and a steamer.”
In the end, he continued, “With all the limitations we have, I think we’re doing alright.”