A survey on school lunches found that many students find food portions for menu items like popcorn chicken are too small. Others believe the food is too processed and unhealthy with options like mac and cheese, hot dogs and "Italian Dippers". And some parents say their children have told them their cafeteria has ran out of food.
Then again, slightly more than half of parents surveyed by Monroe Public Schools report their children are happy with the lunch program in their school.
When asked if they were satisfied with the overall service by Sodexo, the company contracted to run the lunch program, 51% answered "Yes" and 49% checked "No".
Board of Education member Mark Antinozzi pointed out that many questions in the survey are that close when it comes to satisfaction.
"Much are 50% satisfaction. It could go either way," he said at the board's meeting on Dec. 17. "That's not the way it should be. There should be more of a balance for approval than disapproval."
Board Chairman Darrell Trump said, "I've been in business a long time and a company's satisfaction had to be 80% or above to be a good provider."
Lee Crouch, a board member, noted how some parents who are happy with the level of service may not have responded to the survey and fellow board member, Kelly Plunkett, said less than 10% of parents in the district participated in it.
"There were a lot that didn't participate because they were unhappy with the food," said Vice Chairwoman Donna Lane. "A lot of parents I spoke to said they never received the survey."
Though Sodexo's contract does not expire until June of 2014, the Board of Education decided to put the lunch program out to bid by sending out a request for proposals in a 6-3 vote.
During the discussion of the survey results, Supt. of Schools James Agostine said Sodexo was responsive to complaints and that he met with its executives, who blamed USDA guidelines on the maximum amount of meats and grains for 2012-13 for much of the problems. Agostine said the guidelines led to boycotts of school lunches around the country.
The USDA recently lifted the restrictions.
"They're ecstatic the restrictions were lifted, because they think that's the reason behind it,' Agostine said of Sodexo.
Aside from running the school lunch program in town, Agostine said, "Sodexo has been a true friend."
Sodexo donated food for the Monroe Rotary Club's golf tournament, supplied free food to the Monroe Senior Center when it was being used as an emergency shelter during Hurricane Sandy, and assisted Newtown Public Schools in getting Sandy Hook Elementary School's cafeteria set up at Chalk Hill, according to Agostine.
Digesting Survey Results
Plunkett noted how responses to survey questions could be misleading. For instance, she said a child sometimes likes the main dish but not the sides.
"It's a hard survey for parents to do when they didn't eat it," she said of the food, adding she doubts the results could be trusted even if children took the survey.
"I'm adamant about not voting tonight," Plunkett said. "I think going to an RFP is too reactionary. The RFP could come back higher. We haven't sat down with the vendor to talk about the issues and come up with a working plan."
Board Secretary Mark Hughes said, "I don't think we're doing the district any disservice anytime we go out for an RFP."
Some parents have complained that school cafeterias have actually ran out of food before, according to Board of Education member Donna Lane. "One child going without food because they ran out is too high for me," she said.
Lane also pointed out that 63% of parents surveyed expressed a willingness to pay more for higher quantities and quality of food.
Antinozzi said the survey results could help Sodexo to improve.
"If you're not aware of something, how can you correct it?" he asked. "They're a big corporation. They know what they're doing. Let them correct it."
Trump countered that if Sodexo didn't know there were issues, then that's an issue.
Crouch suggested having a small group of Board of Education members meet with Sodexo executives to question them and, if they don't like the answers, then go to an RFP. Board member George King agreed.
No Food in the Cafeteria?
Board of Education member Jeff Guttman expressed doubts that school cafeterias have run out of food, saying children may tell their parents they ran out of something they wanted without mentioning that other food options were available.
"We all have kids," he said. "They stretch the truth a little bit."
Plunkett said, "It's incredulous to me to run out of food in a pantry. I want a 30-day action plan and if they don't improve, we can go to an RFP."
"I thought the same thing," Lane said. "How can a cafeteria run out of food on the second day of school? A cafeteria worker told my daughter, 'We ran out of food. Sit down.' And I know she wasn't the only student. One employee who left gave me a list of things. She said they cut their hours. She asked for more so she could clean the cafeteria. It's disgusting."
Prior to the vote, Antinozzi said, "I ask that Mrs. Lane recuse herself for a conflict of interest. I don't see running out of food in this district."
Guttman disagreed, saying, "Every decision we make here involves the children. None of us would be able to vote. We all learn from others' experiences."
Trump said, "In this case Mr. Antinozzi, I don't think recusal is required."
The board decided to go out to an RFP by a vote of 6 to 3, with Trump, Hughes, Lane, King, Guttman and Dr. Alan Vaglivelo in favor and Crouch, Plunkett and Antinozzi against.