Cape Elizabeth High School to decline federal meal assistance

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CAPE ELIZABETH — The high school will withdraw from the National School Lunch Program on the recommendation of the district’s food service director.

The School Board Nov. 13 unanimously backed the decision to stop accepting federal aid for student meals.

In his presentation to the board, Food Service Director Peter Esposito cited wasted food and lost revenue as two key reasons for the action.

Superintendent of Schools Donna Wolfrom said in a Nov. 13 email that the proposal initially came up at a Policy Committee meeting earlier this year, during discussion of a wellness policy.

“We have very few free or reduced(-cost lunch) students at the high school, and many of our juniors and seniors tend to leave the school to buy their lunches elsewhere,” Wolfrom said. “The National School Lunch Program has many restrictions that may not be conducive to students’ tastes.”

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture documents, a rule that went into effect in March 2012 required schools to “increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and low-fat fluid milk in school meals.”

The document also states schools were required to “reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat and trans fat in meals,” which was expected, in part, to “mitigate the childhood obesity trend” across the U.S.

Wolfrom said Esposito had plans for “many healthy products” the high school students would enjoy, although they might not meet the lunch program’s stringent requirements.

Esposito echoed that at Tuesday’s board meeting.

Food made under the current guidelines, he said, is being “thrown away” by students, and departs from what he called the “from-scratch” program the district had when he started working there a decade ago.

“It’s getting harder and harder to make those recipes work under the current guidelines,” he said.

As a result, he said, the district is losing money from a drop in the number of students purchasing lunch and a la carte items.

“Our program was self-supporting; we never received any town subsidy whatsoever,” Esposito said. “We were able to support ourselves, including salaries, benefits … out of our own money that we generated. … Now it’s non-existent.”

He said he is not planning to sell students soda or candy, but rather to go back to selling “full-size” bagels and items such as soup from scratch.

He also explained what seem to be contradictions in the guidelines, such as the fact that certain granola bars do not meet the requirements, but a marshmallow Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal bar does.

Cape Elizabeth High School Principal Jeffrey Shedd  said he “wholeheartedly” supports withdrawing from the program.

Shedd also said it is “exceedingly rare” for students to buy the entire entree offered at lunch, which is required by the National School Lunch Program. Students who do so, he said, risk being stigmatized.

“I think that really does single out in a way that’s unacceptable,” Shedd said.

Esposito said 46 of the School Department’s 1,580 students receive free lunch and 10 receive reduced-cost lunch – a total of about 3.5 percent, with the fewest at the high school.

Pulling the school out of the program will cost $42 in subsidy per month, he said. 

Esposito also said he feels confident the schools will be able to “carry” the students who receive free and reduced-cost lunch after withdrawing from the program.

Pond Cove Elementary School Principal Jason Manjourides said “many, many students” get hot lunch at his school, and Cape Elizabeth Middle School Principal Troy Eastman agreed, saying he thinks the participation in buying lunch is greater at the middle school than in high school.

Board member John Voltz suggested, however, that the School Department report on what it is doing “from a nutritional point of view” to ensure the food served outside of the national program is healthy.

Board member Hope Straw said she is reassured that the schools have their own nutritional policies, which “will continue to be there” after the withdrawal.

Vice Chairwoman Heather Altenburg also noted that bake sales, which Cape Elizabeth High School regularly holds, are against the guidelines of the National School Lunch Program. 

“So that either needs to stop or we need to pull out,” she said. 

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 780-9123 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

As School Board member John Voltz listens, left, Cape Elizabeth Superintendent of Schools Donna Wolfrom displays a granola bar that does not comply with National School Lunch Program guidelines. The board on Nov. 13 unanimously approved having Cape Elizabeth High School withdraw from the program.  

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