LYNN — Despite a revamped menu and a new program that allows Lynn Public Schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students regardless of income status, some parents and kids are still unhappy with the food, or say some kids go hungry because there’s simply not enough of it.
Results from the first three months of the school year, shared for the first time in December, showed more kids are eating at school, but the problem appears to be that some students might not like the food being offered.
School administrative officials were prompted to look into improving the quality of food in the district, which led to a revamped menu this year, after a group of Lynn mothers appeared before the School Committee last spring to demand Lynn Public Schools provide better food.
Las Madres de Lynn, a Latino parents group founded by the North Shore Labor Council Women’s Committee, said last spring their kids were coming home hungry and that food was being thrown out because they wouldn’t eat it. They reported expired milk and juice.
On Thursday, a community food tasting was held at the Lynn Public Schools Administration building, following a request from Las Madres to try the new menu items.
Before the tasting, School Business Administrator Kevin McHugh gave a presentation to the parent group on the school district’s efforts to retool the menu based on food students responded to favorably, with student data collected through surveys. Each day, students are offered a choice between a hot or cold lunch.
“What’s important to me is I still consider the students our customers,” McHugh said. “It’s important to me that we serve food the students want to eat.”
Despite favorable survey results, which showed students overwhelmingly enjoyed many of the new menu options, the group of parents said their kids don’t like the food, which leads them to throw it out and go hungry.
The group was told that the district is limited by stringent nutritional guidelines from the United States Department of Agriculture, which may make for food that may not taste as good as what they get at home or in a restaurant.
In addition, another challenge is the district’s elementary schools don’t have kitchens, which means food is not cooked and prepared on site the way it is at the middle and high schools.
Some parents said the problem is not the taste of the food, but rather that there’s not enough of it. Their kids may have late lunches and when they get to the front of the line, there’s no food left for them. That’s happened to Africa Beato’s daughter, who attends Lynn Classical High School.
When food was sampled on Thursday, parent feedback wasn’t much better. Parents said the new elementary item, arroz con pollo, or rice and chicken, was too spicy. One father said the food was too bland. Other parents said it wasn’t fair that the middle and high school food tasted better than the elementary food.
Superintendent Dr. Patrick Tutwiler said he was surprised by some of the concerns, but wasn’t surprised that not every student likes the meals.
“You’re not going to find a school district in this country where that’s not the case, where there’s not a kid who says I don’t really like school lunch,” Tutwiler said. “What is concerning, of course, is when students report there’s not enough food, when it’s their turn to receive food and there’s nothing there. That’s deeply concerning.
“It’s concerning when students say that milk or juice or food is spoiled. I can hear the feedback about it tasting good and we’ve got a plan to address that. That’s what the surveys are about, but there should be enough meals at school, every day, for every student. If that’s not happening, that’s something we want to address really fast.”
One parent, Paula Flores, said through an interpreter that she spoke to her son about the sun butter and jelly sandwich, a new menu item that 82 percent of students surveyed responded to favorably.
Her son told her that he and his friends initially liked the sandwich because it was new, but eventually grew sick of it and wanted a different option. Eventually, the thickness of the sun butter became too much for him, Flores said.
“My daughter will eat almost anything, but she complains about the school food, saying she doesn’t like it,” said Edith Lemus through an interpreter.
One Breed Middle School student, who asked to remain anonymous, said the breakfast items, like cereal and French toast have been offered at lunch, which is not favorable to some students.
The student said the French toast served at lunch on Thursday was burned and the sausage was still partly frozen and uncooked. At times, the student said the milk has been expired and smelled bad.
“It’s tough to please 10,000 kids,” said McHugh, explaining that the district serves more than 10,000 lunches per day, but steps have been taken to address food waste and to try to prevent expired milk.
He said there’s a sharing table, where students are encouraged to put the food, milk and juice they take but don’t open, which other students can have.
Kevin Richardson, senior director of dining services for Lynn Public Schools and a representative from Chartwells, the company the district commissions to facilitate its meals, said school staff checks all milk when it’s delivered from the Garelick Farms in Franklin to make sure it’s not expired.
When milk is delivered, it’s supposed to be good for two weeks. If milk is still bad, that’s something that has to be addressed with Garelick, he said.
Although some parents and students may be unhappy with the food, this is the first school year that all kids eat free thanks to a new program in Lynn Public Schools.
Over the summer, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) approved a request from school administrative officials to enter into the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program, part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
The program is aimed at ensuring no kids go hungry and reduces the stigma of low-income families who may have otherwise had to apply for free meals. All students can receive a free breakfast and lunch, regardless of their status.
Results three months into the school year first shared in December showed that the number of students eating breakfast and lunch district-wide had increased by an average of 7 percent.