Montclair students have many choices for lunch including burgers with a choice of toppings, roasted vegetable paninis and black bean burgers, a nacho bar, a deli station, fruits and veggie bar and a pizza station. But some parents and administrators question why older students are still opting for outside services such as food trucks and off-campus dining, while others are lobbying for healthier options.

Pomptonian became the district’s new food service vendor this school year, taking over from Chartwell’s.

Mark Vidovich, Pomptonian’s president, gave a rundown of services at the March 28 BOE meeting.

High school parent Abraham Dickerson, a professional chef and longtime advocate for nutrition in the schools, said he felt Montclair had been making good progress with its previous food service provider, with lean meat being included on the menu and an emphasis on snacks with nutritional value.

Chartwell’s contract was for $130,000, while Pomptonian’s is $205,000, according to the 2017-2018 budget.

Dickerson has been critical of the high vendor contract when he claims the freshmen frequent the independent food trucks parked at North Fullerton Avenue and Chestnut Street, and upperclassmen choose to go off campus for lunch.

Dickerson has raised concerns on numerous occasions about the nutritional value of Montclair’s school meals. He also alleged that some of the snack items being provided in the schools did not meet the required nutritional standards.

Compared to the 2016-17 school year, Pomptonian has seen an increase in sales by 25 percent and a 35 percent increase in students buying lunch on campus. However, Montclair has a relatively low school lunch participation compared with other districts, Vidovich said.
Dickerson has been especially critical of food trucks being parked outside the schools during lunch hours.

“We have an open campus that contributes to participation. That makes no sense at all,” Dickerson said.

Healthier options

Board member Joe Kavesh pointed to a vending machine on the other side of the atrium of the George Inness Annex, which contained drinks such as Diet Coke. “How would you justify all the drinks in the machine behind you, in terms of them being healthy or not?” he asked Vidovich.

Because Montclair participates in the national school lunch program, there are stringent regulations regarding the “Smart Snack” regulations, Vidovich said. Montclair’s wellness policy requires reviews to ensure compliance with those rules.

At the middle and elementary schools, students can order deli sandwiches, chicken Caesar salad with dinner rolls, hummus platters and bagels with cream cheese, cheese sticks and yogurt.

“What could we as a board do to make foods that you provide our kids even healthier?” Kavesh asked.

Raising the bar

The district has received some complaints regarding the food service, Kavesh said, but acknowledged that any district is likely to receive complaints.

Parent Trente Miller asked about the protocols for giving feedback on food service. She also suggested the board to drop into the schools during lunch to see food service first-hand.

“If you haven’t actually gone to visit a school, spot check at a school and see food service, I strongly encourage you to do it,” Miller said to the board. “It’s important for you all to see what is going on.”

Vidovich said the company welcomes feedback.

“We’ve had a great relationship with the administration, and one of the main things is allowing us to participate in the back to school nights, allowing us to participate in the PTA meetings, a close relationship with the principals so that we can keep on listening to what the preferences are of the community and keep on adjusting as we go on,” Vidovich said.

Qualifying lunch program

Only about 40 percent of Montclair students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch participate in the school lunch program, Vidovich said. Lunches are $3.40 at the elementary schools, $3.65 at the middle schools and $3.90 at the high school. Reduced lunches are 40 cents to those who qualify. Last year, an Open Public Records Act request filed by Montclair Local revealed about 1,500 Montclair students had unpaid lunch debts totaling more than $100,000 at the end of the 2016-2017 school year. Some parents claimed they were billed incorrectly. Since that time, the board revised its policies to address unpaid lunch debt among students, especially to identify and assist families whose children were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.