EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 12, 2013

Timberlane Regional's new service provider may be off the lunch line

Timberlane officials unhappy with Whitson's Culinary Group

By Alex Lippa

---- — PLAISTOW — It’s been a rocky first year for the Timberlane Regional School District’s new food service provider. It also may be the last.

When Timberlane superintendent Earl Metzler reviewed the money spent on food services this year, he was stunned with what he saw.

From September through February, district had lost $94,000.

“This jumped off the page at us,” Metzler said. “It is somewhat common that it is typical to lose money in the first year, but not this much.”

Metzler said there was no single cause for the losses, but he said the district may opt out of its contract with Whitson’s Culinary Group at the end of the year.

The school suffered no loss with Cafe Services last year.

But there are other problems the school is having with Whitson’s besides the financial problems. At a School Board meeting last week, Pollard School cafeteria manager Debbi Waters outlined some of the issues they have seen with Whitson’s.

“We get a lot of dented cans which we can’t use,” Waters said at the meeting. “The produce that we are getting, such as apples, looks like seconds. We are also getting product that is already expired when we get the product, which we can’t use. We’re just not getting the things we should be getting.”

Waters also mentioned the school had gotten a batch of muffins with no nutritional facts on the boxes. It turned out the muffins had been baked in a facility which also produces nuts.

“We were assured that those muffins were safe for the kids who had peanut allergies,” Waters said. “Luckily, no student got ill from this.”

George Visconte, director of food services for the Timberlane Regional School District, would not comment. Visconte is an employee of Timberlane and Whitson’s.

As a result, district officials are looking at the possibility of running their own program. Metzler proposed that all food service employees move on to Timberlane’s payroll. Two-thirds of the employees are paid by Timberlane, the other third is paid by Whitson’s.

“One of the benefits to running it ourselves is that we would use local food and local farmers,” Metzler said.

Only 29 of the state’s 90-plus School Administrative Units outsource their food service contracts, according to Cheri White, nutrition administrator for the state Department of Education.

“There isn’t a trend either way that we’re seeing,” White said. “Each year, some go on and some go off.”

But the idea of outsourcing would intrigue Cathy Lisi, a parent of two students at Timberlane Regional Middle School.

“The food right now is just too bland,” Lisi said. “I’d like to see fresh produce from local farm stands being served to our kids.”

The school has a multi-year deal with Whitson’s, but has a 60-day window to opt out of the contract, starting on May 1.

“Both options are still on the table,” School Board Chairman Rob Collins said. “It’s always disconcerting, but I know other districts are suffering from similar growing pains. I’m confident that we will figure something out.”