A fresh start for school lunches

Two weeks ago a peculiar aroma emanated from the sky over 50 New Haven public school cafeterias. Mystery meat? Nope. Tuna surprise? Hardly.

The source: freshly picked, local corn on the cob — a culinary and logistical experiment that was part of an overhaul of the New Haven school district’s food-services division, now under the supervision of new Executive Director of Food Services Timothy Cipriano.

Cipriano, who assumed his role in July, has his work cut out for him. His appointment came after the New Haven Board of Education chose not to renew the school district’s contract with the Philadelphia-based food-services corporation Aramark in late April. Local unions had expressed frustration with the alleged poor quality of Aramark’s food and supplies, as well as the company’s mismanagement of Elm City schools’ food-services and custodial staffs. Now, Cipriano is aiming to make the school lunches he serves not only tastier but also more healthful — even if it is costlier for the city to support.

And so far his efforts have generally been met with approval, both from union leaders and school administrators, who said they have had very few complaints from food-services employees or students.

Cipriano, a chef by trade and a former restaurant manager, said he was always put off by poor-quality cafeteria food, and so he has made a commitment to change the way school food is prepared and served.

“I wear my chef coat when I walk into the schools during lunchtime,” Cipriano said of his new job. “It sort of shows the students that we care more, that there’s a chef running the program who knows food, versus some big national company.”

For Cipriano, this commitment to culinary quality means serving food that is fresh, seasonal and local whenever possible. Under his management, New Haven public school menus now pull from about 10 local farms, serving plums and peaches, apples and pears, and even zucchini and sweet potatoes to approximately 20,000 Elm City students from pre-K to high school, Cipriano said.

In addition, Cipriano said he is trying to make cafeteria food more nutritional by, for example, working toward making all bread products — rolls, pizzas and breaded chicken — whole-grain.

But, he said, he recognizes that the high cost of local produce and the often finicky tastes of schoolchildren mean his changes will not be too extreme. He said that the majority of his food still comes from the suppliers from which Aramark ordered its food.

“I’m doing some big things, but we’re not going too crazy,” he said. “I’m just implementing things slowly.”

For example, Cipriano said, he has worked with the vendor Tyson so that half of the chicken he receives from the company can now be used for oven-roasted chicken cooked on the bone — Cipriano’s favorite school-lunch dish — rather than for nuggets, tenders or patties.

“It’s still a highly processed chicken,” Cipriano said. “But it’s still a better product.”

But these changes, however modest, still come with added costs. Cipriano said the cost of producing a meal is more than the amount for which the government reimburses the food-services division. He said he buys local when “it’s in the season and the price is right,” but he is still working to make adjustments in the division’s budget.

So far, union response to the new food-services program has been cautiously optimistic.

Larry Amendola, president of the Local 3144 management workers’ union, said that, because the program is still brand-new, it is difficult to judge its performance relative to Aramark’s. Complaints from union members against the conglomerate first surfaced last November and culminated last April in a large protest outside City Hall. The Board of Education soon voted to drop Aramark and bring food production in-house.

But, Amendola said, the fact that he has not heard many complaints from food-services supervisors in his union this school year is a good sign so far.

“We’re hoping it’s a happy medium, and hopefully we don’t have the same problems that we had with Aramark,” he said.

Cipriano said he is impressed that his staff of more than 180 — which, with the exception of the upper-level management, has remained intact since Aramark’s departure — has been so willing to try his new approach to school meals, even if it often involves more cooking from scratch.

“I don’t believe it’s us against them,” Cipriano said of his relationship with his food-services employees. “We’re working as a team.”

Meanwhile, the response at city schools has been generally positive.

At the John C. Daniels School of International Communication, Assistant Principal Marlene de Naclerio said the new food-services program offers a significant improvement from the options available under Aramark’s tenure.

“There was a time last year when the kids really weren’t eating their food,” de Naclerio said. “It didn’t even look appetizing.”

Even though the children might not appreciate the added nutritional value of Cipriano’s new menu offerings, de Naclerio said, students are certainly enjoying the taste and variety of their meal options this school year. Very few students bring their lunches from home, she explained, and even those students who do are often inclined to get the cafeteria food as well.

Worthington Hooker School Principal Bob Rifenburg, who is new to his school this fall, said although he did not see the way Aramark operated, he thinks the manager at Hooker’s cafeteria has been “very responsive” to student needs, including requests for vegetarian options.

But Clinton Avenue School Principal Ana Rodriguez-Robles said it is still too early to judge student response to Cipriano’s changes at her school. For now, she said, she has not heard complaints from either students or parents, which indicates to her that “at this point, it’s not an issue.”

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