Tag Archive | "Wellness Policy"

Room For Wellness In The Pierson Cafeteria

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Chef DSCF7524 adjusted

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.

Trans-fats? Eliminated.

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 He has since had to remove it from the cafeteria because he found it contained high levels of sodium; it’s been replaced by a chicken quesadilla he prepares himself.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.”

Board Votes to Keep Wellness Policy As Is

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PB&JSandwich

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.”

Ban the Jelly Belly 4/26/12

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When the Sag Harbor School District decided a few years ago to make peanut butter and jelly the low-cost food of choice for children who, for whatever reason, arrived at school without a lunch, or money to buy one, it was with the best of intentions.

At the time, the school’s cafeteria was facing a serious deficit and the board, looking to cut costs, decided PB&J was a good, relatively cheap alternative to the full meal served to paying customers.

It is still a decent low-cost option — in theory.

However, as the old saying goes, PB&J is only as good as the company it keeps.  Whole wheat bread is better than white, and natural peanut butter is better than highly processed varieties. (Though this is fuel for another discussion.)

At issue now is not the peanut butter (and the allergies many kids have to it), but rather jelly, that gelatinous blend of fruit and sugar which compliments ground peanuts so well.  The jelly that had been used by the Sag Harbor School District until this year contained high-fructose corn syrup.  Not unusual.  Many jelly varieties do these days.

In case you don’t know, high-fructose corn syrup differs from regular table sugar (sucrose) in that it is a liquid sweetener made from corn.  It has been widely used in place of sugar for the past 30 years because, as a liquid, it is easier to transport than its granulated counterpart. We also grow an awful lot of corn in this country and it has to end up somewhere.

However, according to several studies, including one conducted by Princeton University in 2010, high-fructose corn syrup may more readily lead to obesity than table sugar. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rate of obesity in the United States has doubled in the last 20 years.  Correlated or not, this is certainly cause for concern.

So, what does this have to do with jelly here in Sag Harbor?

We’re not saying that eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich will make your child obese. We’re not even saying high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners should be banned from the school entirely. All students have the right to bring their own lunches to school, be it a hearty mix of kale and quinoa or PB&J with two cups of Smuckers jam between slices of Wonder Bread.

The issue here is the example that the Sag Harbor School District sets for its student body.

We applaud the school board’s decision last November to adopt a Wellness Policy that leaves no room for high-fructose corn syrup and fake sugar substitutes in food and drink provided by the school. While we don’t think the school should eliminate choice, we do believe it has a responsibility to offer healthy choices and stand by those choices.

They’re out there. Beverages like plain seltzer and 100 percent fruit juices are good alternatives and popular among kids. How about mixing the two to create a fizzy fruit drink? And, to its credit, the district is working to acquire healthier food items to stock next year’s cafeteria. The bidding process is a little more involved than the comparatively effortless process of buying off the state contract.  But, the way we see it, the pay-off is well worth it.

Yes choice is good — and since the school has chosen to offer healthier options, we feel it has no obligation to provide the alternative. So if kids still really need that high-fructose corn syrup fix, let their parents buy it and pack it in a lunch box. That’s their choice.

Jelly in a Jam at Pierson

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PB&JSandwich

By Claire Walla


Before showing a Power Point presentation on unhealthy eating habits and the rise of obesity in the United States last Wednesday, Sag Harbor Elementary School parent Susan Lamontagne dropped dozens of bite-sized chocolates onto the wooden table where board of education members sat facing an uncharacteristically large crowd. The candies fell to the table with loud thuds, causing board members to lean back in their chairs.

“This is just to show that I’m not totally against this stuff,” Lamontagne explained as a disclaimer before proceeding with the rest of her presentation, which outlined what she referred to as a health crisis in the United States.

Lamontagne attended the April 18 board meeting, along with a handful of other Sag Harbor mothers, including youth sports coordinator Allison Scanlon, Barbara Kinnier of the Wellness Foundation in East Hampton, and Barbara Clark, a member of the school district’s Wellness Committee. The mothers came en masse to speak out against a proposed revision to the school’s relatively new Wellness Policy, which was unanimously adopted by the board in November.

“If you reverse the current policy, you’d be moving backwards on an issue that every other school is moving forward on,” Clark said.

“I feel very strongly that we should keep [the Wellness Policy] as is, even strengthen it,” Scanlon added. “Any measures to allow food and beverages back into the cafeteria that contain high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners would be detrimental to students and staff.”

The board was set to discuss changes to two specific paragraphs of the newly adopted policy, which were proposed by board member Sandi Kruel.

Rather than strictly limit the presence of “non-nutritive” sweeteners like sucralose, saccharine and aspartame — which the current policy now does — the revision suggests those items be sold “at a minimum.” Similarly, it suggests foods containing hydrogenated or trans-fats or high-fructose corn syrup — also barred by the current policy — “only be sold at the school if another product cannot be substituted.”

More specifically, the discussion seemed to hinge on jelly and diet Lipton Green Tea.

Kruel said she was first made aware of issues with the current Wellness Policy when a parent complained that her daughter, who is diabetic, doesn’t have any drink options in the cafeteria now that the Wellness Policy is in place. The student used to drink Diet Lipton Green Tea, which contains artificial sweeteners and is therefore prohibited by the school’s Wellness Policy.

According to Kruel, failing to provide more sugar-free drink options — beyond water — for children with diabetes is essentially a form of discrimination.

“We have vegan options and gluten-free options,” she said, comparing diabetes to certain other dietary restrictions. “I’m not asking for Diet Pepsi,” she continued. “But to tell someone to just drink water is kind of pompous, if you ask me.”

Furthermore, Kruel said she pushed for more leniency regarding high-fructose corn syrup because the school’s chef recently expressed concern over the fact that he’s technically unable to serve the school’s “no-cost” lunch option — a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — now that high-fructose corn syrup has been prohibited. It was one of the main ingredients in the jelly he had been using.

[District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said in an interview this week that he spoke with the school’s chef and made sure that peanut butter sandwiches (without the jelly) and apples could be substituted for PB&J.]

“I don’t think we have the right to say absolutely no to everything,” she added. And for this reason, Kruel said the main issue is that students need to learn how to make educated choices. “I teach my children: everything in moderation, because you’re just not going to be able to walk into an IGA or King Kullen and not find high-fructose corn syrup.”

School Board President Mary Anne Miller would agree on one point: that education is a key component to fostering the health and wellness of students within the Sag Harbor School District.

However, she and Kruel fall on two very different sides of the green-tea-and-jelly debate.

Miller, who was responsible in large part for crafting the new wellness policy, firmly believes that the strict elimination of ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners is non-negotiable.

“I am opposed to revising the policy because I don’t think we should lower the bar, I think those things can be dealt with,” she explained. “These are not challenges to me, and I think we can get around this without limiting choices.”

She said the problems posed by green tea and jelly can be mitigated with more creativity and careful planning when it comes to purchasing. Though it takes time to search for more healthy items, and they may not be as cheap as fructose-filled jam, she added that the school could certainly buy a jelly made without high-fructose corn syrup, as well sugar-free drinks that don’t contain artificial sweeteners.

According to the district’s Business Director Janet Verneuille, the school district is currently in the process of bidding out food items for next year.

“Our intent is to include a jelly product that meets the district’s required specifications as part of this bid for the 2012-13 school year,” Verneuille wrote in an email. “We are optimistic that a vendor will win the contract to provide the desired jelly product at the lowest price to the cafeteria.”

The shift in the school’s approach to health and nutrition would bring about a “culture change” that Miller said she always anticipated when she sat down to write the Wellness Policy — she never expected these changes to be easy.

However, she continued, the obesity epidemic in the United States is so pervasive that making these blanket changes, in her eyes, is non-negotiable.

“This is an issue all over the country, school districts are trying to raise the bar with regard to health and wellness,” she continued. “I don’t think we can not do it.”

As she stood before the members of the Sag Harbor School Board, Susan Lamontagne pointed to slides depicting information gathered by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Obesity in the United States has doubled in the last 20 years, she said, and the instance of diabetes has tripled.

She picked up handfuls of candies and dropped them back onto the table, causing more “thuds,” as well as growing alarm among board members, for whom the candy was getting too close for comfort.

That was her point.

“We’re surrounded by this stuff!” Lamontagne exclaimed. “It makes all of us parents who are trying to do the good thing look like the bad guys.”

“I commend you for the changes we’re already making,” she continued, voicing support for the district’s current Wellness Plan. “It’s so vitally important that we have healthier foods in school, without high-fructose corn syrup.”

Board Accepts Second Reading of New Wellness Policy

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By Claire Walla

School Board Member Mary Anne Miller has made it a mission to restore health and wellness to the Sag Harbor School District. And on Monday, November 28, school board members approved a second draft of the school’s updated Wellness Policy, over which Miller, a member of the school district’s Wellness Committee, had great influence.

The issue of health and wellness has been a growing one across the nation, as the rate of childhood obesity in America continues to climb, and it’s been a focus for this school district of late. Just this summer, the administrators made Health and Wellness one of its four over-arching goals for the school year, emphasizing, as Miller put it, that “We need to live and breathe wellness.”

The Wellness Policy thus extends the goal of promoting healthy habits outside the cafeteria and standard physical fitness classes.

“It’s not just about isolating nutrition education to health classes [which students are only required to take in seventh and tenth grades], but to bring nutrition education to the whole education program,” Miller explained.

It promotes the use of physical activity in the classroom, and clearly states that recess and physical activity are not to be used to discipline students. According to the policy, “Students may not sit out of physical education class as a response to inappropriate behavior, unless that behavior affects safety,” and “recess shall not be used for punishment or reward.”

The program also promotes physical education programs that students “can pursue throughout their lives,” like yoga, fitness walking and step aerobics.

The new Wellness Policy not only targets students, it lays the groundwork for healthy habits district-wide. As the policy explains, one of its purposes is, “To incorporate into the curriculum, whenever possible, nutrition education and physical education to instill in our students lifelong habits of healthy eating and daily physical activity.”

The impetus to change the district’s policy came just over two years ago when the school board began to take a good hard look at the floundering Pierson cafeteria.

“At the beginning of my term [on the school board], the cafeteria was struggling so much and was going to be shut down,” Miller began. At first, she continued, “I looked at it from a business stand point. But then I became keenly interested in school service programs.”

Miller said she noticed that the Sag Harbor School District was in “a unique position” because it doesn’t contract out food services with a larger corporation. “We have the freedom to be a really good program and to provide higher quality food.”

“There’s much more to wellness than the cafeteria,” Miller said. “We’re trying to broaden the horizons of the policy to make it more meaningful to everyone.”

Miller worked closely with other members of the Wellness Committee — including fellow board member Teresa Samot and Athletic Director Montgomery “Monty” Granger — to craft a clearer document that, as Miller put it, “is easier to digest.” (According to Miller, the former policy was vague and included 19 recommendations toward the end that she said should have been incorporated into the policy itself.) She also worked to make sure the Wellness Policy was updated to conform to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations, as well as the school’s own values regarding health and wellness.

For example, she explained, the wellness policy is now stricter when it comes to ingredients. At least half of the cafeteria’s starches must be “whole grain rich,” and the school will be required to provide vegetarian and gluten-free options on a daily menu or as a la carte options. Both two-percent and whole milk will not be provided by the school, and nor will foods or beverages containing non-nutritive sweeteners, hydrogenated or trans-fats, and high-fructose corn syrup.

“It was, I have to say, a ton of work,” said Miller, who added she took part in numerous webinars about health and wellness in the process of crafting this policy. “But I put a ton of time into it because I feel so strongly about it.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to healthy eating habits, Miller said it often feels as though administrators are swimming against the tide.

“We have laws that make it more difficult to buy lettuce from farmers in Bridgehampton than from farmers in Ohio,” she vented.

She went on to explain that public schools often cave in to less nutritious menu items because they are typically more cost-effective. This is especially the case with schools that have a high percentage of students who qualify for free-and-reduced lunches. Schools are required to offer “complete” meals at a low cost to qualifying students, for which schools receive government reimbursements.

Miller pointed out that the cost of public school food has been a national issue recently. Congress was faced with a bill in November that would have prevented tomato paste from being classified as a vegetable (thus preventing pizza from also meeting the school-lunch vegetable quota — as it does now). But, a noticeably steamed Miller continued, the bill was rejected.

In Sag Harbor, however, only about seven percent of students qualify for free-and-reduced lunch. This ends up being to the advantage of the district, she continued, because it means the majority of students can afford to buy higher-quality food items. So, even though the district might not be making a profit from the full meals it provides, the cafeteria can bring in other food items and sell them individually at a higher price.

“It’s a slightly different business model, and no one’s held that entrepreneurial hat before,” she explained. In this way, the cafeteria can hope to make money, while at the same time providing full meal options and nutritious food.

“We cannot teach our kids that it’s lethal to eat high-fructose corn syrup and then serve it in our cafeteria,” she went on. “What we’re saying is, the cafeteria is part of their education.”