My School Board Legacy? Blowing the whistle on pretzels.

on board

May 26, 2003

By Mark J. Grossman

In my two-year tenure as a school board member, few parents have stopped me to talk about the heady education issues of the day. In my school district, the hottest topic has been twin pretzels.

Twin pretzels are those chewy, salty, twisted pieces of irresistible dough that sidewalk vendors sell in Manhattan. You see, until a couple of months ago, “Twin Pretzels” was the name of a lunch entree at elementary schools in the South Country school district in Suffolk County.

Frankly, I found it appalling. In today’s health-conscious environment, could it really be that two (thus, the “twin” moniker) soft pretzels were being offered to elementary school students for lunch?

Like any good school board member, I did some research. I asked my first grader about it when she came home. There must have been some protein source such as cheese or meat inside, right? It seemed not. “Just pretzels, daddy,” she told me. “With some fruit and milk on the side.”

Ah. Fiber, fruit, and dairy. Sounds great on paper. But it was a lunch only a bureaucrat in the U.S. Department of Agriculture could love.

My philosophy is this: Everything we do in school is potent with opportunities to teach and learn. If we serve children a lunch entree that we as adults consider a snack, what are our children learning about what constitutes a healthy and nutritious meal?

I raised this question at a school board meeting earlier this school year and it seemed to strike an emotional chord with fellow parents. Like it or not, calling attention to the Twin Pretzel Issue may be my legacy to the community.

The discussion re-ignited interest in a district-sponsored Nutrition Committee, a group made up of parents, students, faculty, administrators, and food service staff. Also represented on the committee is our food service contractor, Fine Host, which was recently purchased by Aramark Corp.

While school board members often find solutions to most identified problems to be slow and incremental, in this case the results were rapid and dramatic. Several new entrees have been introduced which include bread products higher in fiber, and protein sources that are lower in fat. For example, a non-meat option veggie wraps is now a daily lunch choice. Whole wheat bread and pita are now served in place of white bread on many sandwiches. Protein-rich chick peas are now an option for the “grab-and-go” salads. Student now have choices such as vegetarian chili, veggie burgers, veggie tacos, hearty homemade soups, and pasta primavera.

I know what you are thinking. “We’d love to offer healthier menu choices to our students, but all they want to eat is pizza.”

Our district is working to remove barriers to students trying new food. In the past, if a student tried something new and didn’t like it, they were simply out of luck. Now, students have the option of purchasing a second lunch by going right back to the cashier if they dislike their first choice.

Much of the credit for our expanded menu and creative cashiering goes to the district’s food service vendor, Fine Host. South Country’s lunch program is self-sustaining, which means that the modest $1.20 elementary and $1.35 secondary students pay for lunch must completely cover the cost of delivering each meal. Free and low-cost government food commodities help keep the cost down, so lunch selections outside of the usual government subsidized selections run the risk of affecting the financial viability of the program.

But, to their credit, Fine Host has shown not only willingness, but also an enthusiasm, to help find creative solutions to the challenge of delivering a healthier, cost-effective lunch. To that end, this spring they provided family food-tasting opportunities, so students and parents could taste-test new menu choices and provide feedback to food service staff. The more popular items are now being incorporated into school menus.

Other possibilities include a “make-your-own” sandwich station with lean, high-quality cold cuts and fresh-made pizza. If the response is good, profits can be plowed back into new and more innovative lunch choices.

Another way to provide a higher quality lunch would be to raise prices. But in today’s economy, that’s simply not prudent. By working together parents, students, faculty, school board, and food service provider we can significantly improve our lunch offerings and help lay the groundwork for what will hopefully be a healthier future for our children.

Mark J. Grossman, of East Patchogue, is a member of the South Country Central School District Board of Education.

Mark Grossman, My School Board Legacy? Blowing the whistle on the pretzels. On Board, May 26, 2003, Page 4