By Claire Walla
Keeping high-fructose corn syrup at bay, the Sag Harbor School Board says the Wellness Policy stays as is.
The Sag Harbor Board of Education faced outrage from some parents at its last meeting in April regarding proposed changes to the district’s newly adopted Wellness Policy. The proposal, which would have amended the policy to allow the district to serve high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners on a limited basis, was bashed by some for making allowances that seemed to backtrack from what they saw as the school’s upward trajectory regarding health and nutrition.
At a board meeting last Monday, May 7 the board was again set to vote on re-tailored amendments to the current policy, this time drafted by District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto, in response to last meeting’s lengthy discussion over, primarily, Diet Iced Tea and jelly.
The proposed changes would have required students with dietary restrictions — gluten allergies or diabetes, for example — to retrieve special food items from the nurse’s office.
Not a single board member favored this plan.
“The Wellness Policy is going to stay in place, until we get obstacles like peanut butter and jelly, or a beverage for a child,” said school board member Sandi Kruel.
The initial effort to amend the Wellness Policy came from Kruel, who identified two issues that arose in the wake of its adoption. For one, she said a student with diabetes no longer felt she had beverage options in the school cafeteria once diet drinks (specifically Diet Iced Tea) were removed. And secondly, she said the school would no longer be able to serve its no-cost lunch item to students without a meal (PB&J) because the jelly contained high-fructose corn syrup.
The dilemma with jelly came directly from the school’s cafeteria manager, Greg Pisciotta, who said he’s run into some difficulties in trying to get the cafeteria to be 100 percent compliant with the new policy.
Pisciotta said the facility is currently about 95 percent free of all products banned by the district’s Wellness Policy. (In addition to high-fructose corn syrup, the list of items banned includes non-hydrogenated oils and whole milk.)
“I got rid of [those items] as soon as you guys passed the policy,” he told board members, adding, “As soon as I read it, I went into a frenzy!”
He noted that at any given time the cafeteria kitchen has roughly 500 products, give or take.
“You might be able to find one or two [with high-fructose corn syrup], every once in a while something pops up,” he said, “but then I get rid of it.”
The crowd in the library that night applauded Pisciotta’s efforts to get his kitchen to comply with the district’s new policy. However, the chef added that his job is not easy, given the constraints of his working environment.
“The problem is I only have two kitchen workers and we only have an oven and a steamer,” he explained. “There’s only so much I can do. I figured out how to make pasta in the oven, but it took me three times.”
Moving forward, the board recognized these constraints but decided it should not affect the language in the Wellness Policy. The board will instead get regular reports from Pisciotta on the status of cafeteria operations and address issues as they arise.
Speaking from behind the podium — a new addition to school board meetings —on Monday, parent Susan Lamontagne, who spoke against amending the policy at the last meeting, reiterated her point: Whether it’s high-fructose corn syrup or Sugar in the Raw, the U.S. is inundated with sugar and the district should work toward severely limiting it. She and other parents in the audience again urged the board to keep the Wellness Policy intact.
However, Lamontagne added, “Sandi [Kruel] raised a very legitimate point about choice.”
Reaching into the cotton bag she had put on the podium before her, Lamontagne pulled out various flavored drinks — including Honest Tea, Honest Ade and a flavored water called Hint. All the products contain the natural sweetener made from the stevia leaf. While Lamontagne cautioned that research does change all the time, she admitted Stevia has not yet been linked to any medical conditions the way other artificial sweeteners have.
Pierson Cafeteria Manager Greg Pisciotta took note of the drinks.
“They are going to add beverages to the cafeteria that contain Truvia,” added Kruel, referring to a brand name for stevia. “That’s great!”
In other news…
The Sag Harbor School District is well on its way to analyzing and implementing changes in its grading policies.
Pierson High School Assistant Principal Gary Kalish and Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone both told the board they spent this academic year gathering and distributing information on grading practices, as per one of the district’s goals set last summer.
Keeping in mind there are a number of ways students are assessed — from standardized tests to class participation—the goal, Kalish said, is to achieve more consistent grading throughout the district.
For example, some teachers may pay more attention to participation than others.
“It’s hard to deny the relevance of non-achievement factors [like attendance and class participation],” he explained. “What we’re discussing now is what role do they have in grading and reporting.”
Malone added that while report cards and grades “look very different” at the elementary school level, the lower school is also working with faculty members to identify best practices. In the coming year, Malone said the school will also keep an eye on what’s happening at the high school level “so there will be some correlation between the two buildings.”