Teri Gallucci’s 16-year-old son has a few reasons to be excited for the first day of school.
Last year, Dante Gallucci underwent frequent chemotherapy treatment for lymphoma and missed a lot of his sophomore year. Now, the cancer is in remission, and Dante is ready to be a full-time student again.
And he can’t wait to buy the school’s bigger, tastier lunch.
At a glance
The Schalmont Board of Education voted to opt out of the federal lunch program at the high school. Unless the board reverses itself:
• Popular menu items will return and portion sizes will increase.
• The high school will add a student-run cafe.
• The district will lose $12,000 in state and federal funding.
• The cost of lunch will increase from $2.25 to $4.
Parents have 60 days from June 23 to weigh in on the vote. Comments should be directed to Superintendent Carol Pallas or Marcy vonMaucher, school nutrition director, by phone at 355-1342 ext. 5069 or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“He’s been through a lot,” his mother said. “He really needs to eat a lot and eat properly.”
Since 2011, the federally mandated lunch portions offered at Schalmont High School haven’t been big enough to feed the 6-foot-4-inch Dante, who is back up to his healthy weight of 250 pounds. When he did buy lunch, he bought two lunches.
But on June 23, the Schalmont Board of Education voted unanimously to opt out of the federally funded National School Lunch and Breakfast Program at the high school and the financial assistance that comes with it. The vote was the result of “student feedback, a decrease in high school students buying lunch and the district’s need to run a cost-effective school lunch program,” Superintendent Carol Pallas wrote in a June 30 letter to parents.
“I think it’s terrific,” Gallucci said.
With the decision, Schalmont joins two other area school districts, Niskayuna and Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, which opted out of the program last year.
The vote means the price of high school lunch will jump from $2.25 to as much as $4, and a la carte items will cost about 30 percent more. The increases will offset the loss of about $12,000 in federal and state meal reimbursements and allow the district continue to offer free and reduced price meals and milk, Pallas said. Last year, 85 high school students qualified for the program but only 17 took advantage of it, she said.
“We’re hoping to make that up and then some, with the volume of increased participation,” she said of the lost funding.
Pallas also said the district was already considering increasing the cost of lunch next year “because we need to sustain the cafeteria.” She said the cafeteria broke even last year but “it didn’t look promising staying in the program.”
Gallucci said the price increase could be an issue for some parents, “but Dante, my son, needs more food, so obviously we would be willing to pay more.”
She also said $4 is less than what students would pay if they bought lunch at a local restaurant.
The federal regulations are aimed at addressing the epidemic of childhood obesity by limiting portions and the types of food can be served. For example, schools must serve larger portions of fruits and vegetables and half the grains served must be whole grains. The regulations were introduced with the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
When the regulations went into effect in 2011-12, the number of students buying lunch at the Schalmont High School dropped significantly, from 48 percent the previous year to 30 percent. The number increased to 32 percent in 2013-14.
The number has stayed about the same at the middle and elementary schools, which will continue to participate in the federal program.
The decision was also prompted by further federal regulations going into effect in the fall that limit snack options.
“The area where we were able to make up some of the lost revenues in lack of meal participation over the last couple of years is now being taken away from the students,” Marcy vonMaucher, school nutrition director, wrote in a memo to the school board members. “The entire choices of low-calorie flavored waters, teas and juice drinks will not be allowed as well as the baked chips, pretzels, popcorn and cookies.”
Those options will remain if the changes go into effect.
The district polled student council members, including Dante, who serves as class treasurer, and even let them taste them sample lunches that could be offered without the federal regulations.
“The responses were very positive about the potential changes and the students agreed that they would help to support these changes so that the cafeteria can remain financially stable,” vonMaucher wrote.
Lunches will continue to have five components — milk, grain, protein, vegetables and fruit — and the cafeteria will increase its healthy options. Fruits and vegetables will be available, but students will not be required to have one of the two on their tray every day, a regulation that led to a lot of waste, Pallas said.
“Please rest assured that all of our school meals will continue to be well-rounded, as has been the aim of the district since long before the new regulations were implemented,” she wrote in the letter.
Portion sizes will increase, popular meals, menu items and daily alternatives will return, and vegetarian options will be offered daily.
Specifically, the school will add roast beef, corned beef and other proteins to the sandwich/salad bar and specialty salads made with nuts, sprouts and quality dressings, among other offerings.
The school also will introduce a student-run cafe in the high school lobby. The regulations had prevented the district from selling food in the high school lobby.
Cookies will also be making a comeback. Pallas said the regulations forced the cafeteria to start making its once popular cookies out of wheat flower.
“I thought they were pretty good, but I’ll tell you, the kids didn’t,” she said.
Parents have 60 days from the school board’s June 23 vote to weigh in on the decision before the changes take effect with the first day of school. Pallas said the district could reverse its decision if enough parents voice their opposition, but added that the decision was not made lightly.
“We really tried to think of all avenues before we went this route,” she said. “Thus far, we’ve had a fairly positive response to this change.”