New school lunches have some parents seeing red

Published 4:15 pm Saturday, September 20, 2003

By By BEN RAYMOND LODE / Niles Daily Star
NILES -- Some parents say lunch prices at Niles Community Schools are too high and they can no longer afford for their children to buy lunch at school.
However, school district administrators say the basic lunches cost exactly the same as last year -- $2.10 per meal.
Those basic meal offerings aren't the issue, disgruntled parents say.
It's the $2.25 for a slice of pizza, or the deli-style sandwiches for $2.50, or other ala carte extras available for purchase by students at Ring Larnder Middle School or Niles High School, thanks to the recent privatization of the district's food service.
One parent said last year she could send her children to school with $3 each and that would buy them lunch. This year, she said it takes $5 a day per child to buy a similar meal.
Niles Community Schools contracted with successful bidder Chartwells School Dining Services to provide meal service to students.
In doing so, Niles school officials said they saving about $100,000 by contracting out the food service.
Faced with a choice of those more expensive, tantalizing extras, students are choosing them over the traditional, federally-regulated hot lunch offering.
Kathy Crocker Zeider is involved with Parent Teacher Organizations at the elementary and junior high school level.
Zeider, who has three children in the school district and is also hosting a foreign exchange studnt, doesn't think students and families have been put first by school district administrators in this instance.
She has already experienced that the amount of money she has given her children -- which was enough last year -- isn't enough for the lunches they end up buying this year.
She is concerned the school district has become a business, rather than a place to teach and educate children.
Zeider also complained some students have been confused because of poor signage and little information about the cost of food at the different food stations.
JJ Merimonti, Chartwells manager in Niles, said signage wasn't complete at the beginning of the school year. Law said that problem could have stemmed from the fact that Chartwells was just starting up its operation at Niles Community Schools.
Doug Law, Niles Community Schools superintendent, said he is aware some parents are upset about the cost of lunches. He attributes that to the fact that students may not have known what made up a basic lunch at the beginning of the school year or the new offerings and their additional cost.
He suggested parents who find they are having to give their children more money to buy lunch at school should encourage them to purchase the basic lunch, which costs the same as last year.
Melody J. Long works at Tri-County Head Start and has two children in the school district.
She is upset enough over the increased cost of feeding her children in the Niles Community Schools district to write a letter to the editor of this newspaper.
Long is now preparing lunches at home for her children to take to school. She said, however, she feels badly about not being able to afford to give her children the money they need to buy the lunch they want at school.
In addition to complaints about high lunch costs, Zeider questioned who is profiting from the additional money being spent by parents to feed their children lunch in the school district.
Bob Wright, Niles Community Schools business manager, said the school district pays a fee of 9 cents per basic meal served to Chartwells. In addition, total sales from Chartwells a la carte menu is divided by $2.34 cents, which is the average costs of an a la carte meal, and the district pays 9 cents for each of those meals to Chartwell as well.
Law and Wright said the school district privatized its food service operation in an effort to save valuable school budget dollars that could be better spent directly educating children.
Despite menu changes, Chartwells is reporting a 20 percent increase in the number of students buying school lunches this year, as compared with last year.
The program has been running for four weeks, he said.