It’s a national movement with a local hook: People want to know how nutritious school lunches are for children. With pictures of blue-stained chicken nuggets and a “mystery meat” cheese steak sandwich, local mom Peta Moran’s blog EatHoboken.blogspot.com has been opening the eyes of nutrition-minded parents in the mile-square. And the digital expose is also spurring action from local officials.
“It’s a government commodity product. It’s not dog food.” – Sean Walsh
Food for thought
“Growing up, we ate in a totally different way,” Moran said last week. Her Greek heritage embraces the art of cooking and the joy of sharing a meal, while her South African upbringing taught her to do more with less and to avoid fast food. “We couldn’t afford it,” she said.
One day she asked her daughter what she ate at lunch at school. She said her daughter told her she ate chicken nuggets.
“What else?” Moran asked her.
“That’s it,” her daughter replied.
Moran talked to the district’s food service vendor, Chartwells, one of the largest school lunch vendors in the nation, and was not pleased with the initial response.
She says she was given excuses that sometimes they run out of this or that.
This past March, Moran ate her first school lunch with her daughter. The schools were serving what Chartwells calls “breakfast for lunch,” or as Moran put it, “Sugar, sugar, and more sugar.”
That’s when Moran decided the best way to change the system was to make people aware of what was going on.
Thus, Moran visited the schools every day to take a photo and write a description of the school lunch with a comparison of what the food provider had promised and what was delivered.
Her mission is stated on the page: “I will post [the pictures] so that we can raise awareness to the food quality that is being served to our children and I am hoping that other parents will be moved into action and help form a Wellness Committee, which by the way, was mandated by the state back in the 2006. The Hoboken School District has yet to see one.”
Blue chicken nugget
In her second day of blogging, Moran found a chicken nugget that she said was stained with blue spots that she suspected to be mold. The staff explained that it was residue from the non-stick surface of a pan.
“I’m convinced it was mold,” she said last week. “I’d almost rather it was mold.”
On their plate
After hearing of her blog, the school district reached out to Moran in April and gave her a walkthrough of the large kitchens at Wallace School and Hoboken High where the food is prepared for the roughly 1,500 children who eat school lunch in the district.
Sean Walsh, Chartwells’ food service director for Hoboken, gave the same tour to the Reporter two weeks ago. Chartwells serves over 500 school districts nationwide and over 50 districts in New Jersey.
He said the children are given a minimum of five choices at each meal, whether breakfast or lunch, and are required to take at least three of the five choices for a “complete meal.” He said no one can force the child to eat what they take.
Unless they receive a government subsidy for a free or reduced lunch as many local parents do, school lunches cost $2.75 per person and $3.25 at the high school.
Walsh touts the incorporation of whole grains into the meals and the homemade vegetable marinara, but he concedes that some decisions are based on costs.
The chicken, for instance, is bought from the government, for which the company receives a subsidy.
“It’s a government commodity product,” Walsh said. “It’s not dog food.”
He said parents are welcome to criticize, and that the company meets a few times a year with students for feedback about what they like and what they don’t like. “You learn and keep making improvements,” Walsh said.
Since Moran has raised the issue, Chartwells is now providing fresh fruit baskets at every outlet in the district every day, not just on occasion.
“We’re trying to offer a fresh vegetable every day,” he added, but said that it is difficult to do so in the satellite schools without a kitchen. “We’re continually trying to make changes. If we can get kids to adopt it at this age, we’ll be a healthier county 20 years from now.”
Moran agreed that things have improved. “They’re serving a lot more fruit and vegetables,” she said.
Superintendent Peter Carter said in an interview, “This parent is concerned about their children’s lunch. We have heard no pediatric concerns and no other parental concerns.”
Carter eats the school lunches from time to time and enjoys the food, he said. He has also dealt with Chartwells in other districts with no issues arising until now.
“We’ve spoken directly with the parent. We’re aware of [the blog]. We have made sure that our children are being properly fed,” he said. “We are working with that person to ameliorate the situation. We believe the concerns have been met.”
But Moran said one concern has not been met. The district does not have a child wellness policy in place, although one is required by law.
School Board Vice President Theresa Minutillo said last week that she wasn’t aware that a policy wasn’t in place, or that it is federally required due to the fact that some school lunches are government subsidized, until Moran raised the question.
“We were behind the ball because we didn’t know that this is something we were supposed to have,” Minutillo said. “The minute we found out…we started talking about it. We talked to Peta about [joining a committee to create the district policy].”
Moran said that the district response has actually been slow. “I’ve been complaining for quite a while,” she said.
Minutillo said the committee, once formed, will complete a policy before the next school year begins.
In the meantime, Moran will keep blogging and more changes may come, like maybe a school garden to grow produce?
Moran hopes so.
Timothy J. Carroll may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.