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HILLSVILLE — It hasn't been all gravy during the first year of Chartwells serving meals in the Carroll schools, but educators feel the company is worth its salt to renew.
The Carroll County School Board approved the second year of a contract with the private food service company, feeling that they will do a better job at cutting the mustard now they've had a year with the program.
As presented by Financial Manager Tammy Quesenberry at last Tuesday's close out meeting for the year, the contract will remain the same — Chartwells will get about $119,000 and about a half-cent per meal sold.
One difference from last year is that there's no guaranteed financial return to the school system this time.
"It will be a break even budget with us paying down about $100,000 down on our debt," Quesenberry explained.
"Remember last year that we did the point-of-sale system, we bought all new equipment, we remodeled the high school [cafeteria], we remodeled the intermediate school."
The total debt for that work is $400,000, and the school system intends to pay it off in four years.
Food service had about $6,000 in unpaid bills this year, down from a high of more than $8,000, Quesenberry said. School officials have done what they can to try to recoup, but the $6,000 will be absorbed.
On evaluating Chartwells, she has met with representatives of the company. After a year of operations, they know where the weaknesses are and what they need to focus on.
The main thing to work on is breakfast participation.
In fact, participation was down in general. "We did not serve as many meals — breakfast or lunch — last year as we did this year, but you also had nine less days this year and that's a big chunk," Quesenberry said, considering the inclement weather days that closed the schools.
The average number of meals served per day was also down.
Why did Chartwells think the service was down? School board member Phillip Berrier asked.
It was a combination of starting up of the program and meeting the students' expectations, Quesenberry answered. "I think they lost them at the start of last fall — the food was not what the children were used to," she said. "They had a biscuit and gravy that was just…"
"... not Carroll County gravy," Berrier completed the sentence. "You've got to have a little ham..."
"...A little salt," Quesenberry added.
"You can't have that city gravy," Berrier said, laughing.
Chartwells also served a lot of wraps and other items the children were not used to, Quesenberry said.
Breakfast is a habit, and the children got out of the habit at the start of last year, she said. But Chartwells will try and get them back in the fall.
"They're going to make a full push on breakfast this year with a lot of variety and things kids like," she said. "They've got some good ideas."
Officials feel good about what Chartwells is planning, said schools Superintendent Greg Smith. He believes they are balancing the taste of the food with a good healthy selection.
"We could boost these sales if you offered food that the children like on a regular basis," he reflected. "You know, pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries — you really don't want to do that.
"You want to really offer healthy choices. Many of the students, honestly, they want those fat-oriented, fat-laden foods, but those really aren't healthy choices for the students," Smith said. "So we are offering a very balanced menu and we think that's very positive."
From doing a survey of students at the high school, the thing that the youth wanted more of in the food was salt, Quesenberry added.
School officials pushed hard to get the food service program going by the start of school last year, Smith feels. That could have caused some of problems.
Prices for breakfast and lunch will remain the same, Quesenberry said. There might be some minor tweaking of the a la carte offerings.
"I still think we didn't do the right job of introducing those kids to the program, because some of them went in there and got four items on a la carte — it cost them $10," said School Board Member Harold Golding, giving an example of the confusion. "And they could have got the same thing for a lunch."
Staff put up big signs in the lunch lines and talked to parents to inform them about how the lunch program worked during the course of last year, Quesenberry said. They've had a year to improve the processes.
School Board Member Franklin Jett made a motion to renew the contract. The motion was approved unanimously.