Food buying co-op criticized
Even though the Lee County School District’s food department is saving thousands of dollars after joining a statewide food purchasing conglomerate, some residents are worried that meals provided to students are lacking proper nutrition.
Bob Rushlow, president of the Support Personnel Association of Lee County, said the union has received no details about the district’s partnership with the P.O.W.E.R. Buying Group.
Basically, the program consists of a group of school districts which joined together to buy food at more competitive prices. By July 2008 the buying group included 39 of the state’s 67 school districts, according to the company.
Joining the buying group has in essence privatized the district’s food department. In the past, cafeterias throughout Lee County cooked most lunches from scratch, employing local workers and purchasing from local food vendors. Now, a majority of the meals are frozen and shipped into the county.
This year the district eliminated 16 assistant kitchen managers and cut many of the food service worker hours in half, resulting in a loss of benefits for some employees.
Food Service Director Wayne Nagy explained that dramatic changes had to be made to the department because it had a $2.1 million deficit, which last year was transformed into a profit of $890,406. The deficit was a result of rising food and labor costs, he said, so now cafeterias give employees fewer hours but put more people on the line during breakfast and lunch.
“We can offer healthy choices and feed the children in a very effective manner with more hands.” said Nagy.
Furthermore, he said Lee County has the same number of employees under six hours as other school districts. Sixty-eight percent of food service employees work more than six hours, he said, which is close to Collier at 62 percent and Charlotte at 29 percent.
According to Nagy, the district is purchasing its food at 2004 prices in this group and the annual expenditure to be part of it is $5 million.
Meals for students are now cheaper, but union officials are skeptical about the purported quality.
Rushlow compared meals from the buying group to “microwave dinners” and said that any questions regarding nutrition have gone unanswered. The union also is concerned about food quality and whether the district will know who to turn to if there is a problem.
Patty Allen, a 29-year veteran food service employee, said a large majority of district food is frozen.
“Once they purchase everything, we order it, they deliver it to the school and we basically put it on pans and bake it,” said Allen.
The only food still cooked in cafeterias is spaghetti, said Allen, but the sauce comes in a two-pound bag that is frozen. Other companies provide them with prepackaged lettuce, tomato and other produce, while food service workers are only responsible for making salad dressing.
Some schools serve Papa John’s pizza one day each week.
Almost all district food was made from scratch until two years ago. Allen said she used to make rolls that the children raved about.
“They used to love those and the kids say today they miss them. Now we are getting them frozen,” she said.
All of the nutritional value is analyzed on the district level, but Allen said she is concerned about how much preservatives are in the food. Recipes and some nutritional facts are posted on boxes that contain the food.
“Things you buy frozen and prepared have preservatives in it. In my opinion, that isn’t good for you,” she said.
Allen said the number of kitchen staff has decreased considerably. According to Rushlow, some 200 food service positions were affected by the drop in hours.
“We don’t have enough people to cook like we used to. They have cut us back so far so they have to furnish this type of food,” said Allen.
She believes that the district is trying to cut back on the food department until they can begin hiring outside contractors to do the same jobs for less.
“What they are trying to do, at this point, is to get easy food for us to cook so they can keep cutting us further,” she said.
School district policy requires that all food and beverages shall be consistent with the current USDA Dietary Guidelines for Healthy Americans, guidelines that are compiled and upgraded every five years. New USDA guidelines will be published in 2010.