District gets poor grades for lunch program

Juneau School District has until Monday to respond to state review

Posted: Friday, December 28, 2007

A recent state review of the Juneau School District food service program's compliance to National School Lunch Program standards left the district with a failing grade and funds withheld until corrections are made.

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The deadline for a school district response to the state is Monday.

A weeklong review, conducted by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development in October, found incomplete meal production records and determined that spoiled or out of date food was included in delivered lunches "on several occasions." Additional poor marks were given after inspectors ruled that the school district misused funds generated by vending machines, and menu records were altered to better reflect nutritional targets during the inspection week.

Reviewers cited eight problem areas and then withheld $17,000 in school lunch program funds. During the 2006-07 school year, the school district served 100,000 free and reduced lunches to 900 eligible students.

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Superintendent Peggy Cowan categorized the problems listed as "mostly procedural" and said district staffers were working to correct the mistakes brought about by what she called a lack of specific knowledge on the rules and regulations governing the federal lunch program.

"We need a more centralized program," Cowan said. "There are a lot of new rules we need to get up to date with."

A primary concern cited in the review came after insufficient production records were provided by the district. The school district contracted ESS Alaska to prepare more than 800 student meals daily. The Juneau School District is ESS's only school lunch client among a large statewide clientele.

During the review, the district did not provide sufficient evidence that the required serving sizes were available or served in children's lunches. Several of the questioned servings were from a primarily prepackaged processed menu of items such as Uncrustables, burritos, Doritos and baby carrots.

Along with specific nutritional requirements, schools must meet serving-size requirements detailed by the federal lunch program and keep records to be monitored by the state.

The school district could not prove it fed students the required amounts of any single food group.

Dan Knauss, vice president of production at ESS, said his company offered the school district a choice of production records based on "Nutrikids," a software tool for food services. The district chose the less detailed version, Knauss said.

"David (Means) made the decision," Knauss said. "He wanted the shorter version."

Means, director of district administrative services, said he did ask for the shorter form, but that neither of the production records offered by ESS would have met the review standards.

"ESS is using the software incorrectly," Means said.

Means said the food being served to students is nutritionally sound and sufficient in quantity.

"We believe they're being fed the appropriate amount," he said. Since records do not exist, Means said his belief comes from estimates done by the school district dietitian.

Cowan said the district has a dietitian that reviews menus for nutritional quality.

In addition to quantity issues, the district was dinged after ESS included "spoiled or out-of-date" food in delivered lunches on several occasions. Neither Cowan nor Means could say exactly what food was spoiled or expired, but Cowan believes the violation came with prepackaged carrots. Knauss said it was expired applesauce and blotchy cheese sent on separate occasions. Both items were prepackaged, he said.

Means wasn't prepared to say what the questionable food items were, if they were served to children or how many times bad food made it into the school lunch program he administers.

"They (the state) have not shared enough information with us," Means said.

Beyond the individual servings question, the review looked at the overall menu offered during the review week and determined that the normal menu offered by ESS was altered by the school district to "more closely meet required nutritional targets only for this specific week."

"This is a dishonest action to misrepresent the foods usually served to students," Andrea Stasyszen and Lydia Wirkus, reviewers, wrote in a document sent to the school district.

Both Stasyszen and Wirkus were unavailable for comment during the holiday week.

Cowan said the accusation is wrong and that the reviewers did not understand the district's normal procedure wherein the staff dietitian reviews ESS's monthly menu for required nutritional standards then recommends changes be made by ESS. Cowan said the menus were indeed changed but the reviewers misunderstood the reason for the change.

"It was a matter of timing," Cowan said. "September's (menus) would have matched."

Means said only one item on the menu was changed.

The review sought to grade the district on its ability to fulfill requirements of the National School Lunch Program. Beyond the quality and quantity standards are regulations that say all proceeds from vending machines or concessions must be applied to nonprofit school food service or school or student organizations.

The review found vending machine and concession money at Juneau-Douglas High School diverted to, among other things, the salary and health-care coverage of the a la carte cook, supplies for teachers, travel expenses for teams and gifts for the social committees.

"The money now goes into a classroom account," Cowan said.

The school district cannot say how much money was incorrectly diverted. Means, who handles much of the accounting for the school district, said the state did not provide enough information on his own program to enable him to provide the dollar amount.

"We're still working on that," Cowan said.

With a list of problems detailing the school district's poor knowledge of policy and procedures in the federally approved student lunch program, questions remain about the district's ability to expand its food service. With the opening of Thunder Mountain High School and the recent recommendation the campus be closed for ninth-graders starting next year, the lunch program will undoubtedly grow.

Cowan said part of the correction plan the district expects to turn into the state on Dec. 31 includes hiring additional district staff and implementing districtwide programs and standards yet to be created.

However with one workday left before deadline, neither Means nor Cowan can say how many staffers they need to administer the fix they propose. They said staff hired would work to centralize the current program and establish districtwide programs and standards that better record the lunch program.

In regards to the future, Cowan said mistakes could be avoided by hiring personnel that know the rules and regulations.

• Contact Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or greg.skinner@juneauempire.com.



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