School starts in East Lyme with new, in-house food program

East Lyme — As students walked the halls of East Lyme High School on the first day of classes on Wednesday, food service workers busily carried trays of food, including hamburgers, pulled pork, fries, green beans, salad, fruit and pizza, to set up in the cafeteria for the first day's lunch.

Chris Urban, the district's food service director, said that after working on the schools' new food service program this summer, he was looking forward to having the students in the buildings — and seeing the program grow.

The district this year is starting a self-operated food service program for its schools, rather than contract with an outside company.

Urban, who was hired this summer and has worked as food service director in the Columbia and Hebron school districts, and also as a food service consultant for Thomaston and Orange public schools, said the food program will focus on "quality, not quantity" and will use fresh produce from local growers as much as possible.

On the first day, locally grown items included plums, apples and lettuce, while the yogurt bar had a strawberry rhubarb compote made with rhubarb from the garden at Flanders Elementary School.

Urban said the districtwide program will offer the same food choices at all of the town's schools and focus on customer service.

He said the program also will work with students to help build the menus and learn about what foods they like. At open houses to be held at the schools in September, parents can sample the food.

In past years, the school district had contracted with the company Chartwells.

Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Newton said the district moved to its own program this year to provide better quality food, including ingredients from local farms, and have better control over costs and marketing in a self-sustaining program. He said student participation in the previous program was down, except at the middle school, and the school district had to use its operating budget to offset some program costs.

He said the program also will provide new ways to engage with students. For example, students traveling with sports teams or clubs can pre-order snacks or meals to take with them on the road. The district also is working on developing a mobile app so students can pre-order meals.

The new program includes plans for special-themed lunches, Urban said. An NFL-themed kickoff party — with football highlights shown on TV screens — will tie in promoting physical activity with the nutrition component of the students' meals. A "beach day" lunch in the middle of winter will feature a tropical-themed menu and smoothies to take students' minds off the snow.

"We want to raise participation, but we also want to make lunchtime fun again," Urban said.

He said lunchtime is students' social growth time, so food service personnel want to make sure lunch is an enjoyable event, rather than just having students eat their lunch and go back to class.

The cost of lunch — $2.75 for elementary students, $3.25 for middle school students, and $3.50 for high school students — remains the same as last year.

Karla Sullivan, the head cook at the high school who has worked with the school district for 19 years, said the new food service program has fewer food options than last year, which means less waste. She said it also will allow the food service workers, the same staff as last year, the time to focus on better quality, rather than having to rush to put out too many items.

She is looking forward to having more interaction with students through the new program: "We’re part of the community," she said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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