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Vol. LXIII, No. 41
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
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School Gardens Co-op Questions Quality of District’s School Lunches

Ellen Gilbert

“Why do we have Chartwell’s, one of the largest food service companies in the world serving lunches to our children in the beautiful garden state?” asked Princeton School Gardens Cooperative coordinator Diane Landis recently.

In response to the recent appearance of Chartwell representative Cindy Hill at a PRS Board meeting to tout the company’s efforts to improve school lunches, Ms. Landis said that “We are cautiously hopeful that Chartwells will come through. They do still serve highly processed foods. I rarely see fish or eggs on the menu — they do serve pizza dunkers, French toast with syrup, and other party type foods to our kids.”

“Considering Sunday’s story in The New York Times about Cargill and a case of e.coli that devastated a young dance teacher’s life, we also want transparency regarding all school food, with online availability of all nutrition labels from every processed item plus farms of origin for all food components,” added Karla Cook, school parent, PSGC board chair, and editor of The Food Times, an online food news magazine. “As parents and taxpayers, all of us have the right to know whether the hamburger that PRS is placing on school lunch trays comes from a company that makes ground beef with trimmings from several different slaughterhouses plus ammonia to kill bacteria.”

Pointing out that information about school food sources is available on Chartwell’s website, Superintendent Judy Wilson noted that “We place high value on our students’ health and will continue to make strides in the cafeterias.”

“There are limits, however,” Ms. Wilson added. “These limits include how much families are willing and able to pay for daily school lunches and how much all families should pay to subsidize the costs of meals for children who would otherwise be on national free or reduced lunch fares. We have asked Chartwells to estimate the costs of moving toward a national model program so that we have a benchmark to work from. I expect that that cost will include fees for new equipment, more staff, and a chef on site. In New Jersey, state law prohibits public school districts from subsidizing the school meal programs; the programs must be self-sufficient. So this is not so much about what the district is willing to budget, although that also has serious limitations and must be prioritized by the Board. It is about how much families are willing to spend each day for all of their children’s lunches.”

During the three years it has been in existence, the School Gardens Cooperative, according to Ms. Landis, “has been working from the gardens on up to change the food culture at the schools. Our mission is to foster garden and food-based education in the classroom, the cafeteria, and the community.” PSGC is awaiting non-profit designation, and has a pending $25,000 “farm-to-school” grant which proposes, said Ms. Landis, “to introduce chefs, farmers, nutritionists into health and science classes and bring in five area chefs to prepare a vegetable of the month for students and parents in hopes of choosing yummy healthy recipes that Chartwells will eventually add to their menu.”

“We would like to work ourselves out of a job,” observed Ms. Cook. “We would love to have a food service vendor nimble enough to know when cherry tomatoes are at their peak so they can bring them in and watch the children devour them.”

While PSGC has created edible gardens at every public school, they do not produce enough to provide for the district’s needs.

“We are eager to see PRS take a national leadership role in education policy matters of food and wellness, just as it has with test scores, innovative curricula, and college placement of its graduates,” said Ms. Cook, who looks forward to forming “a food committee to sample school lunches and advise about food.” She pointed to an absence of “specifics” about “what should or shouldn’t be served” in the district’s RFP for food service, and expressed concern about the fact that current Federal guidelines “recommend that we drastically reduce consumption of these and other processed, packaged items and replace them with a diet based on whole grains, legumes, beans, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. To us, that means taking chicken nuggets, chicken patties, pizza, pizza dunkers, waffles with ‘syrup,’ and corn chips with yellow cheesy sauce off the weekly menu and restoring them to their rightful place as party foods.”

Asked about these concerns, Ms. Wilson responded by saying that “clearly we are and have been moving in this direction. PRS has made significant improvements in our school lunch programs over the last three years. We have removed both the high school and the middle school from the federal nutrition program to allow for purchase of better commodities and a more interesting and popular menu for secondary students. Lunches cost more than on the federal program, but quality is far better and more students are purchasing school lunches (including sushi!) as a result.”

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