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School lunch concerns offer food for thought at BOE meeting

Feb. 8—Many adults of a certain age look back on lunchroom pizza as one of the highlights of the school day. Some on the Pulaski County Board of Education want to restore those student lunches to their glory days.

At a special-called school board meeting last week for the Pulaski County School System, the topic of lunchroom food service was on the menu, as board member Daphne Tucker asked if the district had any extra money available to spend on providing better choices for students. Board member Rebekah Branscum added that in a recent work session, it was discussed that there was a financial surplus in the food service budget.

"We've tried to spend that on new equipment, not really putting a dent in it, and I know (assistant superintendent) Sonya (Wilds) had gone to a conference and came back with a lot of possible ideas of add-ons, grab-and-go stations after school, different things," said Branscum. "... In this county, that's a big thing, is our kids getting enough food? ... I just think if we've got the funding, we need to try to do better with what we're providing."

The Covid era resulted in schools offering a lot of pre-packaged food, and a lot of schools are still doing that, she observed; "I think the more we can get away from pre-packaged, process food (and) making sure we're doing good by our kids for nutrition (the better), and I don't think I have to tell any of you all the benefits of that," said Branscum, who also suggested more student involvement in exploring food options. "I think it will help with attention span in school, a lot of behavioral issues, and just overall learning."

Board member Laura Carrigan proffered the idea of visiting schools to observe what kids eat or don't eat, and said portion size was an issue.

"I have an athlete (for a child) and he is starving by the time that I get him, and I send a lunch with him too, to supplement (what is served at school)," said Carrigan. "I think that if my kids are hungry — and they're eating before school — if you have some kids that don't have some of the opportunities that my kids do, I think they're even more hungry.

"If we can maybe get down on the kids' level and see what they can eat — and not necessary about picky (concerns), because you're not always going to satisfy every palate," she added, "... but maybe there are some ideas out there that other districts are implementing that we can maybe look into."

The idea of a staff nutritionist was ruled out, in part to make sure lunch offerings were still appealing to students; Superintendent Patrick Richardson recalled the push by former First Lady Michelle Obama to emphasis healthier eating in schools as removing lots of elements that students enjoyed, noting with a laugh that there was a "black market for salt" at the school.

But having food made freshly on site was much more desirable — and a problem, according to the district's food service director Mercedes Rutheford, who noted that staffing issues prevented them from doing everything they could that way.

She noted, for instance, that Pulaski County High School should have 13 people in the lunchroom kitchen, and was operating with five at that time. Richardson added that the district was "short at least one or two in every school."

Even so, Pulaski is "probably cook more from-scratch ... than any other district," she said, noting that other school systems tend to use more processed food.

"We just want to be a district that still cooks cinnamon buns, rolls, breadsticks from scratch," added Rutheford. "Every time when you cook from scratch, you know exactly what you're putting in it, and you can cut down the sodium."

Carrigan recalled the excitement over lunchroom pizza when she was a student, and expressed a desire to "get back to a place" when students felt that way.

"I remember going in the cafeteria at PC, you had the pizza line, and I never once complained about school food," she said. "... I never packed my lunch. I ate lunch at school. It was good."

Rutheford responded that she'd be "more than happy" to return to the concept of the pizza line, but "we don't have enough people." Said Carrigan, "That's the root of the problem."

The district's afterschool feeding program is still in operation, noted Rutheford, but only three schools are currently participating because of low student participation and workforce woes — Oak Hill, Pulaski, and Southern Elementary Schools.

"Nobody wants to work," said Rutheford. "We can't get anybody who wants to stay to work for supper to provide a meal."

As far as the student turnout, "Used to, we probably had an average of 86-96 kids. Since the pandemic hit, everything has went down from there."

Richardson recalled seeing fruit that had been sliced in pictures from Scott County schools; "To a student, that is probably more appealing, and they're probably more willing to eat it," he said, "but if we're short one or two cooks in our kitchens, that's hard to for us to be able to get it prepped, to slice 350 apples."

Likewise, money is being spent on disposable eating ware that could be washed instead, but again, the manpower isn't there to do that job, said Rutheford.

Increased pay was a proposed solution by Rutheford, and assistant superintendent Matt Cook also suggested extending the day of kitchen staff to a full eight hours to give them more opportunity to earn money there in the school.

However, said Richardson, "I look at Fayette County, and they're paying almost $30 an hour for bus drivers, and still can't get enough. So I don't know if it's all money-driven. You've still got to have that desire to get out and get a job."

Carrigan said she wanted the school system to "keep our finger on" the issue and not let it go by the wayside; "I really want to be diligent in finding people to get into those positions," said Carrigan. "... I want to help. I want to fix the problem."

Richardson said that school officials would try to come up with a plan to be presented by the regularly scheduled March meeting.