Food for thought

Many older readers might recall the time when children either walked home from school for lunch or were fed home-style meals at school by mothers who worked a few hours in the kitchens. Both practices disappeared as the twentieth century waned

Today, most students live too far from their schools to walk home, eat and return for the afternoon, and the home-style cafeteria meals that the moms used to make are too expensive for school districts to afford. To keep cafeteria costs down, most districts contract with specialized companies to run their food services, and include branded products among their offerings.

The Amity School District (and the Bethany Community School also) contracts with the Sodexho Company, formerly a division of Marriott, to run their cafeterias. In August, Sodexho sent a new manager to Amity, Gary Iacuone, a young man with a formal educational background in food. Iacuone has worked in the food industry for fourteen years, some of those as a souse chef at "the four star Renaissance," he told the Bulletin. This is his first stint in school services and he has brought enthusiasm along with some positive changes to the District cafeterias.

On a tour of the kitchen area —which gleamed as though it had never been used only one hour after the last lunch period—Iacuone stopped at a glass-fronted refrigerator and leaned in to take out a salad. The high school used to have a salad bar, he said, which languished with only about ten sales per day. Iacuone now packages "salads -to-go" in advance in a variety of styles-chef's, tuna, chicken and wraps. He didn't have an exact figure, but sales have more than doubled, he said.

There is a snack bar where students can grab a cup-of-soup, hamburger, cheeseburger, or steak and cheese sandwich, and every day pizza is brought in from Zuppardi's, one of the pizza parlors in the New Haven area considered to be in the venerated Worcester Street style.

For over five years, the high school has had a Subway franchise where it sells Subway cold-cut sandwiches. Financial Manager Keith McLiverty told the Bulletin that the pays Subway $60 per week for the franchise, but makes a profit on it. According to Iacuone, 80-100 Subway sandwiches are sold every day.

For those who prefer hot lunches, every day Iacuone prepares one. Best sellers, he said, are the Italian bread sticks with mozzarella and the fried dough-dunk that alternate on Fridays. Hot lunch with a drink is $2.75.

Since arriving at Amity, Iacuone has tried to bring in more juices to the vending machines that line the walls of the cafeteria. Smoothies, water, and even small bottles of flavored milks are available in addition to the usual array of Coca-Cola soft drinks. (Sodexho, he tells the Bulletin, has a contract with Coca-Cola.)

Asked about the nutrition the kids are getting, Iacuone says, "I'm trying to bring a healthier product in with the juices and the salads. The high school kids make better choices and have more variety than the junior high school."

According to McLiverty, cafeteria sales for October and December were high and he estimates that 75% of the students purchase food there. Even those who bring sandwiches get a drink, ice cream or add French fries to their lunches.

Amity, McLiverty says, pays Sodexho a percentage of sales, depending on the type of food. The District also pays the expenses such as cost of the food and the help, and then keeps whatever is leftover. He says the Board of Education and the Superintendent plan to "revisit" the types of food and snacks that are served.

A frequent complaint of the students is the slow and long line to the registers. Because of the design of the serving area, it becomes a bottleneck, especially Iacuone says, in the first ten minutes of each lunch period.

McLiverty hopes to alleviate this with "an electronic point of service system," in which pre-purchased lunch cards would replace cash. These would also be able to track the types of food sold for the mangers as well as for parents who want to know what their student purchased. He also would like to include a redesigned checkout out area in the next capital plan as the increased enrollment places strains on the common areas of the school.