As about 44,000 students begin another school year in Sarasota County, they will be dining in ‘the largest chain in the area’

District’s Food and Nutrition Services director talks about the breadth of her department’s work, from serving free- and reduced-price meals to facilitating farm-to-school programs

This is a sample of meals served in the Sarasota County School District. Image courtesy Food and Nutrition Services Department

An estimated 44,000 students — from pre-kindergarten youngsters to high school seniors — are expected in Sarasota County School District classes when the 2018-19 school year begins on Aug. 13. Along with their pursuit of knowledge, they will have the opportunity to dine in the “largest chain in the area,” as district Food and Nutrition Services Director Beverly Girard has pointed out.

During a presentation to the School Board in May, shortly before the conclusion of the last school year, Girard noted that Sarasota County has 16 McDonald’s, six Panera restaurants, 10 Domino’s Pizza franchises, seven Taco Bells and three Chipotles. The school district beats all of them, she added, with 53 sites.

And in many cases, she continued, county students do not even have to pay for their meals. Because of their families’ financial situations, Girard explained, 53.42% of the 42,396 students in the district in the 2017-18 school year were eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The breakdown was lopsided, she noted: 20,526 received free meals, while 2,122 paid a lower cost.

During a telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader, Girard pointed out that the number of students needing that assistance seemed to level off for a while. Then it climbed again last year.

“I think that Hurricane Irma hurt us a little bit more than we thought it would,” she explained.

The county has many seasonal employees, she added, and days of power outages resulted in lost wages.

A chart shows the percentages of students in the Sarasota County Schools in February who received free and reduced-price meals. Image courtesy Sarasota County School Board

A section of the Executive Summary of the School Board’s tentative 2018-19 budget — which the board adopted after a public hearing on July 31 — notes that since 2007, the percentage of district students meeting the requirements for free or reduced-price lunches has increased from 41% to 54%. “To qualify for free meals in 2018,” it said, a child had to be part of a family of four earning no more than $31,980 a year.

For children to qualify for reduced-price lunches, their families of four could not earn more than $45,510 a year.

Among the schools with the highest percentages of students who met those requirements in a report for February 2018 were Emma E. Booker Elementary (97%), Alta Vista Elementary (93%), Tuttle Elementary (92%) and Gocio Elementary (91%) — all in Sarasota.

The two schools with the lowest percentages were Pine View in Osprey (15%) and the SKY Academy Englewood Charter (13%).

Quantity and quality

This graphic provides a wealth of statistics about food service in the district. Food and Nutrition Services Department

Last year, Girard told the School Board in May, her staff served 28,774 meals a day.

When schools were opened as shelters after Hurricane Irma’s strike in early September 2017, she added, the daily meal volume was 33,247.

For students, the daily count encompassed 6,301 breakfasts, 20,920 lunches, 904 suppers and 649 snacks, according to a slide Girard presented to the School Board.

The slide noted that the Food and Nutrition Services staff offers nine distinct menus each day. Girard also provided some sample menus.

“We’re not just school food,” she said. “We’re great food served at school.

Following Hurricane Irma’s swing around Sarasota County, Girard’s slide said, staff and volunteers served 7,457 breakfasts, 24,659 lunches, 974 suppers and 669 snacks.

(During the after-action review the Sarasota County Commission authorized last year on the community response to Hurricane Irma, Craig Fugate, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator from 2009 to 2017, and peer reviewers from county and city emergency management offices praised Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Todd Bowden, the School Board and district staff for all their efforts in providing schools as shelters to almost 20,000 people who sought refuge from the storm.)

Girard’s budget for the 2017-18 school year was about $20.4 million, she told the School Board and audience members present for her May 15 presentation. The payroll portion of that is about $8.7 million, with an estimated $7.5 million allocated to food purchases.

The School Board’s tentative budget for 2018-19 shows the estimated total of appropriations for food services to be $21,343,801.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides the district funding each year, she added. For example, the district receives support through the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, Girard said.

A graphic shows sample menus, which the district provides in several languages, so parents who are not fluent in English can help their children decide on meals through the district website. Food and Nutrition Services Department

One fact that makes her department distinctive among its peers, Girard pointed out, is that seven registered dietitians are on staff. “That’s more than any other district our size in the United States.”

Most school districts, she said, have none. Moreover, she continued, the Sarasota hosts the only school district-based dietitian internship in the country. The graduates, she noted, “are in positions of authority in child nutrition all over the United States.”

A graphic showed that the 19thclass of those interns would graduate on May 24 of this year. Altogether, 48 people have completed the program.

Her department also has a strong record of supporting and encouraging the production of food at schools to use in the kitchens. For example, she noted, students at McIntosh Middle School produce greens for salads.

Yet another facet of her department’s operations is its strong ties with local farmers, she continued.

One example is the Jones Potato Farm, which provides potatoes to district cafeterias each spring, she said. That farm won a 2016 Commissioner’s Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award, an honor accorded a farmer for best management practices involving irrigation, soil, food safety and fertilization.

Alan and Leslie Jones are the owners of the farm, Girard added.

A graphic shows district staff, volunteers and other personnel who served meals and provided other assistance in shelters during Hurricane Irma’s strike on the state in September 2017. Beverly Girard and a Sheriff’s Office deputy are in the top left photo. Food and Nutrition Services Department

Since 2013, Girard continued, Food and Nutrition Services has received four grants to support the farm-to-school program. They have ranged from $100,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to $36,339 from the Florida Department of Agriculture, a slide noted.

Girard also pointed to her staff’s track record in food safety. “We haven’t had a food [illness] outbreak in my entire time [in the district], knock on wood.”

She began her tenure with the district in 1991, she pointed out.

Her department has about 350 employees, Girard said, noting that eight of them were present in the audience that day. “They’re amazing, hard workers,” she added of her staff. “We will be taking care of every child, every day — whatever it takes,” Girard continued. “That’s what we do in Food and Nutrition Services.”

Board plaudits

At the conclusion of Girard’s presentation, School Board member Eric Robinson told her that then-Chief Operating Officer Scott Lempe wanted “to show off the efficiency of a particular department” in the district, during a discussion earlier in the day with the School Board members. “The one he picked was you,” Robinson said.

Lempe referenced data from districts similar in size to the Sarasota County Schools, Robinson added. “You are at the top of the game,” Robinson said, as Lempe had pointed out.

“As a CPA up here,” Robinson continued, “I just wanted to thank you very much, Dr. Girard, for not just the quality of food but the efficiency in which you deliver it.”

“I, too, want to say thank you to your department,” School Board member Jane Goodwin added.

“The job you did in the hurricane was a really big deal,” Goodwin pointed out.

A number of Charlotte County residents who came to county schools serving as shelters, “brought coolers with them with food,” Goodwin said, not knowing that meals would be provided to them.

Their reaction to the district meals was “Wow!” Goodwin added, noting they were so impressed by Girard’s staff.

Girard acknowledged that she spent 60 hours at Tatum Ridge Elementary School in Sarasota. A photo of her and a Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office deputy who assisted staff at the shelter was widely circulated on social media after the shelter closed.