Several months ago, Hendry County’s school food service program was wrapped in a very touchy controversy, the school year ending on a very sour note for food service workers when the school board voted to privatize its lunchrooms.
On July 1, Erwin T. Evans Jr., entered his office as Director of Food Service. With him he brought a lot of experience in feeding kids. Taking over the school food service after a tense end-of-year struggle that pitted worried food service workers against administration seeking change in the department has proven to be a lot less stressful than imagined a few months ago.
Food service workers had serious concerns about losing their jobs and their benefits last year as the district considered bringing in a private company to run the department. At a highly contentious and emotional school board meeting last April 28 sealed the deal to bring in a company called Sodexo to manage its lunch rooms.
Students were throwing out some 50 percent of the food they were served, so they were going hungry and money was being wasted. Sodexo, which handles meals for some 400 schools along with the contract for Disney World and the US House of Representatives, was awarded the school board contract by a 3-1 vote. Officially, the company took over July 1 to turn things around.
District figures from the first couple weeks of the school year bear out the belief that students would enjoy the lunch room food thus far better than in previous years.
Upthegrove Elementary School Cafeteria Manager Tammy Landrum has been with the district for 25 years. She recalled how disappointed the workers all were when they learned that the service would go to a private company. With just five years to retirement, or at least having the option, she, like so many others, was concerned about losing everything she had worked so hard and so long to build up. She now has a 401K with Sodexo and feels secure about her retirement. Others have taken their retirement and invested it however they chose.
She said they all had the same attitude but came back to work with the intention of working with what they had and seeing how it goes. Tammy said the first couple weeks were rough - she and her group said they were ready to throw in the towel, but it has worked out great and she said all the Sodexo people who have come through are wonderful.
And, of course, the kids are happily eating the food. They love the chicken nuggets, nachos and hot dogs - and of course pizza.
During the first week of the present school term, there were 598 fewer breakfasts served in Hendry County schools than last year, but 1,167 more the second week. Lunch figures for the first week
this year increased by 1,940 and even more, by 4,418 for the second week.
“It’s a process,” said new Food Service Director Evans. Cafeteria employees worked hard over the first couple weeks of school, but UES workers said things are coming together,
The numbers fluctuated over the first two weeks, at their highest on Day 6 with totals of 615 more breakfasts served and 1,072 more lunches countywide.
Wasted food has been minimized, Mr. Evans said.
Superintendent of schools Paul Puletti is very pleased with the program. “It has exceeded my expectations. It’s very rewarding seeing students eating and enjoying their food. LaBelle High School is setting the standard of what we wanted to see.”
Mr. Evans even feels he may be able to hire more employees as the year goes on. He said, along with the workers, they plan to “take what we have and make it better.”
Some of the recipes are new to the workers, but he said it’s really just a matter of following the process. In the end, he explained, “It’s all about the children,” providing them with quality and variety. “Our goal is the best meal possible.”
He was highly approving of the school district’s “awesome” facilities, calling it “some of the best equipment I’ve seen.” He was especially pleased with the ovens with heat, steam and dry heat to simulate frying. He said he is also pleased with the standard of maintenance at the facilities.
The cafeterias are introducing more menu items - LHS and CHS are trying out themed food like carnitas, chicken tenders and pastas, The menus are evolving as they get feedback on what the kids want.
Using good products and purchasing the same products for all schools ensures that the quality and taste is comparable at all the schools.
According to Mr. Evans, practically all previous workers returned this year in spite of the controversy and some 30 additional workers have been hired.
Also new, a dietitian is designing menus week by week, not simply rolling them over from month to month, making for more variety. He said he also has the authority to “localize” menus to suit the tastes of local kids, like the breakfast pizza and burrito kids at Country Oaks liked.
Now he and the workers are actually employed by Sodexo, no longer by Hendry County School Board.
“I’m excited,” Mr. Evans said about beginning his tenure in Hendry County, adding that he welcomes ideas and emphasizes to the employees that “you eat with your eyes” so it’s important to make the meals appealing visually.
Hendry County is smaller, more rural than most of the other districts where Mr. Evans has worked. Still, he said, people and schools are pretty much the same, and he feels he works for the community and Hendry County, even though he gets his paycheck from Sodexo.
He has worked for Sodexo since 2003, except for a sting as a culinary manager for Red Lobster from 2004-06. He came here from Rock Hill, South Carolina and has also worked in both North and South Carolina and Atlanta. From 2006-08 he helped New Orleans put its lunch program together again after Katrina.
His challenge is to make people understand Sodexo does not want to be an outsider, but a partner. “I’m here to work with you,” he said.
Mr. Evans has a heart for kids and understands that you never know what kids are experiencing when they’re not at school. He’s seen homeless students trying to keep going, and kids with all types of issues. “I’ve seen it all and it breaks my heart,” he said.
For most kids a good breakfast and lunch are just part of their everyday lives, but for others school may be the only good meal they get during their day. For them, school meals aren’t a convenience, they’re a necessity that Mr. Evans and his food service workers try hard to fill.