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Schools partner for food service

Increased options and variety in student nutrition is the goal for school lunches next year, according to Sodexo Human Resource Leader Dr. John Sullivan. 

Halifax County Public School Board opted Monday night to partner with Sodexo Quality of Life Services to provide food services in the upcoming school year.

The vote came during the school board’s special called meeting held Monday evening at the Mary Bethune Complex in Halifax. 

Sodexo is one of three major food service management companies that manage over 480 school districts in the United States. Nearby, they provide services at Halifax Regional Hospital, Carlbrook and Liberty University. 

“We focus on nutrition, achievement, environment, community and activity for growth and impact in student achievement and well-being,” said Sullivan. 

The food service management company plans to provide age appropriate menus while meeting all Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act nutritional requirements at all the schools including the early learning centers. 

After voting to partner with Sodexo, the school board tabled making any changes to the food service plan at Cluster Springs Early Learning Center as previously discussed. 

Sodexo hopes to drive participation and student satisfaction by increasing lunch choices. Three choices will be provided to students at the elementary schools, five to seven provided to Halifax County Middle School students and up to eight for students to choose from at Halifax County High School. 

While ED-4 Trustee Cheryl Terry said Sullivan’s Sodexo presentation was impressive, she expressed concerns over whether the schools have the space, equipment and the employees needed to offer additional lunch selections. 

Terry also questioned what adding more selections would mean for the employees. 

“How will it impact the employees? Let’s say if everyday I know I make the bread or whatever I do on my day to day routine, what does it mean for me now that we have three more meat selections or three more vegetable selections or the fruit bar or the salad bar,” said Terry. 

Sullivan replied, “Instead of doing 100 percent of this process, you are just doing 25 percent of these processes just with the production system and the organization and some minor training or adjustments. It’s not a major overhaul, and we are not looking to add staff.” 

With adding more options, Superintendent Dr. Merle Herndon asked Sullivan if waste might become a problem. 

According to Sullivan, Sodexo uses production records to trend what’s popular and what’s not in order to know approximately what they will need to cook to last throughout all the lunch periods.

“Students these days are more discerning on their pallets, they’re used to food courts or high end courts even at younger levels, so you try as best you can to use commodities to bring that flavor or that feeling, and that’s what we try to do,” said Sullivan. 

“Lori (Hale) and the team here are working hard. We have those resources that help speed up the learning curve or take it to a different level,” Sullivan added. 

Students, parents, the community, principals, administrators and employees will be involved with menu development through surveys and daily dialogue with staff. 

“It’s not us coming in saying this is what we need to do. It’s a joint effort soliciting feedback right from the beginning,” said Sullivan. 

The food service staff currently in place will remain Halifax County Public School employees. 

Many of the food service employees packed the meeting leaving standing room only for some, and the school board opened the floor for questions. Most employees were concerned with salary, benefits, training and attire. 

School board members stressed the salaries and benefits that each employee currently receives would remain the same for the upcoming school year. 

According to Sullivan, Sodexo will bring in a general manager, an administrative assistant and “a lot of training.”    

The general manager will implement Sodexo programs and work with the leads and supervisors and front line employees to implement those programs, said Sullivan. 

Training will be year-round including supervisor training, management training, customer service, technical skills, life skills and comprehensive food and physical safety training. Career growth opportunities also will be provided for employees. 

Sodexo also will provide uniforms for the employees. 

ED-5 Roger Long mentioned the efficiency study that was previously conducted explaining in that study students complained about the time provided for lunch. 

“I understand that students like to treat it as a social hour …the way you have it set up, the children have maybe five different areas to go to which is going to give them more time to eat lunch,” said Long. 

“Hopefully, that’s the goal,” said Sullivan.

ED-8 Trustee Walter Potts asked Sullivan what would the division need to do to make sure every child who wants a breakfast can get one for free. 

“We can look to see if Halifax County is eligible for the community eligibility option. It’s based on your percentage of free and reduced meals. We can help you with that,” said Sullivan. 

Potts also said he wanted to look into providing after-school meals “somewhere down the line,” and Sullivan said dinner programs also were an option. 

Sodexo also guarantees a surplus of $10,140 at the end of a fiscal year. 

According to Sullivan, last year the school system had a deficit of $17,855. 

As Sullivan explained it, if there is a $15,000 loss, Sodexo will give up their fees to “make it good up to the $10,000.”

“Our fees are not an addition to your normal budget or general fund. It’s out of the growth we propose in the participation and savings in the division in the nutrition service program,” said Sullivan. 

In order for the school division to be reimbursed for the free and reduced meals, the student must eat the meals, and Sodexo hopes offering more variety will drive participation meaning more reimbursements.  

Chairman Kim Farson said, “Many may have assumed that the board felt (the food service workers) were not doing a good job. This right here is not only us doing something for the children but also doing something for the employees. 

“I want the cafeteria people to feel proud of what they are able to put on the trays for the children. I want you to have the resources, the support and the means you need,” Farson added. 

At the beginning of Monday’s school board meeting, the board came out of closed session and voted to terminate HCMS Motorsports Academy instructor Buddy Wilborn, by a seven to one vote. Potts voted against the termination. 

School board members also took action on five student discipline cases.

At the end of the school board meeting, the board returned behind closed doors to discuss other personnel issues and emerged in open session voting unanimously to terminate HCHS foreign language instructor Cheryl Reaves and approved three transfers. Transferred were Chris Lacks to HCHS P.E. teacher, Sherman LaPrade to alternative education coordinator and Barbara Owen to HCMS SPED lead teacher. 

The board also voted 6-2 to pay a stipend to teachers in critical need areas in math with a three-year commitment stipulation.