School District Awaits Word on Application for Federal Commodities

The School District is awaiting word from the federal government as to whether or not its application to receive commodities for the elementary and middle schools will be accepted.

“I am told we should have something in writing in the next couple of days,” Dining Services Director Amanda Venezia said Monday evening. She met on Oct. 23 with state representatives for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The Oct. 23 meeting was expedited after the School Board, members of the public and U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte, R-NH decried resistance to the District’s application to process foods at the high school and distribute them to other schools, as has always been done in the past.

So far, the School District has missed three of its nine commodity shipments for the school year, a $105,000 allotment.

Venezia said the District won’t see those shipments until the federal government accepts its application to receive commodity foods.

Because the middle school and elementary schools continue to participate in federal lunch, Venezia is required to keep commodities received separate from inventory for the high school, which is not participating in the federal lunch program.

Although they experienced resistance at the federal level, Venezia reported the New Hampshire USDA and the regional branch in Boston both gave preliminary approval for the storage of commodities and method of processing foods for the middle and elementary schools at the high school.

School District Business Administrator Peter Curro noted the method of storage and processing, which the District has always used, saves both local and state money and labor.

“We recognize why the feds want the public commodity money separate from those facilities still on the federal lunch program. We even agree with it,” he said.

Superintendent Nate Greenberg said if the District were not permitted to store commodities at the high school, it would be a fatal blow to the program.

“We couldn’t afford to build a $500,000 new storage facility,” he said.

In addition to the pushback related to their application for commodities, Venezia said the State is reneging on a previous determination that the District could use its profits from food sales at the high school to subsidize free and reduced lunch meals, for which the District no longer receives federal assistance.

While there are ways to avoid an impact to the budget by funding free and reduced lunch (about $40,000) with the general fund, Venezia said the District could use its increased profits to fund capital improvements instead.

Since leaving the federal meals program, Venezia said participation in the program has increased dramatically and the quality of the meals they are serving is substantially improved.

Participation in the high school’s meals program was up to 33.2 percent in September, compared with 29.3 percent for the same period in 2014.

Venezia noted the cost of meals has also increased with portion sizes.

“We’re upholding the same standards as the federal lunch program, but we are increasing portion sizes and offering options like a nice pasta primavera, which is a vegetarian option that wouldn’t fit into the federal lunch standards,” she said at the Board’s Oct. 20 meeting, noting students are purchasing more meals than a la carte options. “The students are seeing the value in the product we are delivering and making that conscious choice.”

In addition to revamping the meals program and contracting with local food vendors, Venezia has reconfigured the cafeteria to improve the flow of traffic and purchased several new pieces of equipment intended to help capture students leaving campus during lunch service, including a popcorn machine, salad bar, coffee bar and frozen yogurt machine.

“The frozen yogurt bar has been an absolute grand slam,” Venezia said, noting the new addition, an item the high school wouldn’t have been able to sell under the federal lunch program, generated $1,416 in revenue in the first four days it was in service. “The yogurt is fat-free and 100 calories for a half-cup portion. It’s better than a bag of chips.”

After learning their application to receive commodities for the elementary schools and middle school still participating in federal meals had still not been accepted, the School Board sent a letter to local officials and elected leaders asking for support last week.

“We would like to put appropriate pressure on the powers that be, and send a letter to our senators, the State legislature, the governor, the commissioner, and maybe also to our local delegation,” Greenberg told the Board.

Ayotte held a press conference and released a statement calling for the federal government to exempt Londonderry schools from burdensome regulations.

“Local school districts in New Hampshire that are working to both ensure proper nutrition for their students and responsibly manage taxpayer dollars should not be burdened by onerous federal requirements from Washington. I urge the USDA to immediately grant a waiver from these requirements and allow Londonderry High School to continue its locally approved and effective food service program,” she wrote.

“The kids seem to be eating, our program financially is better, trash cans are not as full as they once were – all the things we thought we would do student wise and feeding wise in the month of September and October have happened better than we thought, and we are at a crossroads,” Curro said.

“We’re pretty much being stonewalled under our own program and being held hostage by the federal government,” board member John Laferriere said at last week’s meeting. “The federal government needs to stay out of our friggin’ business. Anyone watching in the public should be outraged at what’s going on here. This is absolutely insane. This is our tax dollars we’re doling out, and this is what we’re getting for it.”

“We kind of knew this fight was coming, but we took it on willingly because we knew it was right,” member Leitha Reilly said. “We’re doing right by the kids, making sure they’re fed well, and the kids going to sports are getting enough to eat, and the kids who aren’t getting the nutrition they need can find it at school.”

Reilly said the District should move forward while documenting losses as a result of the federal government’s position and measuring dining service’s accomplishments – using those records to counterpoint future arguments against the program.

“We made this decision because it’s the right one, and we entered into this fight knowingly and willingly,” she said. “My attitude is, we just continue in the vein we know we’re doing right by the kids and the taxpayers, and at the end of the day, right will prevail. We’re used to being pioneers.”

Venezia said the District is looking forward to working with the federal government to resolve the issue as soon as possible so it can receive its commodities and move forward with the program.

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