Turning lemons into lemonade

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Fernwood Avenue Middle School students Michael Thomas-Urbanek, left, Scott Jarvie, standing, and Lucas Dailyda, right, are unhappy with the quality and quantity of food offered to them at school.


School district turns student complaints about lunches into learning opportunity

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP – Lucas Dailyda, a sixth-grader at Fernwood Avenue Middle School, purchased a hot dog for lunch one day in November. After one bite of what he describes as a “green” hot dog, he said he threw up. From then on Dailyda said he packed a lunch so he wouldn’t have to “eat that stuff.”

But Dailyda didn’t want to just alter his lunch options; he wanted to affect change on a larger scale. With the help of his friend Michael Thomas-Urbanek, he decided then and there to start a petition to protest the school lunch options. In December, Dailyda presented the petition of 200 student signatures to the Board of Education. The board took the complaints seriously and sent the information to Thomas Beck, district director of food services.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Dailyda said. “My brother doubted me and a few other kids, but now I have their names on the petition.”

Beck sent Dailyda a personal letter thanking him for expressing his concerns. He invited Dailyda and 15 other students to a taste testing on Wednesday, Jan. 18 to review possible new products and to have a conversation about how the menus were created. Fernwood Principal James Battersby, head cook Kristin Doherty, head cashier Chryl Thompson and representatives from two of the district’s vendors were also expected to attend.

Beck said when Dailyda came forward with his petition, he took it as an opportunity to learn from the students and also to open a line of dialogue about the complicated system he has to use in creating menus.

“I was unaware until that point that there were concerns from Lucas and the other students,” he said, noting it caused him to take a step back and look in the mirror. “Am I doing the right job?” he said he asked himself. “This is not about getting our feelings hurt or getting angry. We are servants of these families. He is right. If he’s seeing it, we need to change. This is an opportunity to turn this into something positive.”

Beck said the green-color on the hot dogs occurred because the turkey-based product sat for a few minutes too long after being steam cooked.

“We try to stay on top of these things and batch cook as needed, but sometimes it gets away from us.”

He said he already switched to an all-beef hot dog that the students have been enjoying better.

The switch caused Beck to have to shift something else in the menu. School lunch programs are regulated by the state Department of Agriculture, and with a push for more nutritious lunches to battle rising childhood obesity numbers, school lunches are held to a stringent caloric standard.

“We can have no more than 30 percent fat, 10 percent saturated fat over an entire week of lunches,” Beck explained. “It is a very involved process. We are under regulation from the state’s Department of Child Nutrition.”

He said the turkey hot dogs were lower in fat than the all-beef ones, but the students are already starting to compliment the staff of the change.

Other recent changes include offering fresh fruit and vegetables at each serving as well as only 1 percent or skim milks.

“We are under the gun pretty good, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. In 2014, there are new regulations coming for our breakfast programs.”

These topics among those expected to be reviewed at the meeting.

“These students are our customers, and they are more savvy consumers than we often give them credit for,” he said. “We can all walk away winners and have happy kids. That’s what we are here for.”

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