While the new charter school in Flagstaff, Basis, is known for its rigorous course work and anticipated high test scores, few people realize they also have a unique alternative to the average school cafeteria.
From smoky pulled-chicken sandwiches to authentic Asian cuisine, students can order meals from locally owned restaurants including Mix, Big Foot BBQ, Stage Left Deli and Golden Dragon. These options are available on designated days Monday through Thursday, while Fridays are set aside for clubs and student organizations to sell food for fundraising purposes.
Basis is not the only charter school in Flagstaff to contract with local businesses to provide lunches to students, as so do Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy (FALA) and Mountain School.
However, while the three schools all conduct lunch programs with outside vendors, each school has a different way of managing their system and all receive different responses from parents.
Marian Armstrong, a member of Basis Flagstaff’s booster club, said the group’s goal was to provide the option to purchase lunches for parents and students who lack the time to make meals before school.
“I volunteered to help coordinate some lunches for Basis with the thought that [lunches are] one road block to parents maybe who want to take their kids to a charter [school] as opposed to the Flagstaff Unified School District schools, where lunch is provided and they have a cafeteria setting,” Armstrong, head of the food committee formed this summer, said. “So we’re trying to overcome those road blocks. It might make charter schools more attractive to a more diverse group of students and parents.”
Since the school’s opening in August of this past year, Armstrong has been using trial and error to determine what meal methods work for parents and students.
“When I started the lunch program, we took surveys and parents seemed to indicate that they wanted healthy choices but they only wanted the prices really low, which is certainly hard to meet,” Armstrong said. “What I found though, with trial and error . . . is that in fact the parents and the kids will actually pay higher prices for meals, to tell you the truth. And if you try to provide super healthy alternatives for the kids, unfortunately, they don’t eat them.”
After holding trial periods with several food vendors, Armstrong said they tried to look for a balance. She concluded that parents and students want bigger meals of foods they typically eat, rather than purely health-driven lunches.
While they are satisfied with their current vendors, they still analyze the service monthly.
“Any vendor that we’ve used, we’ve used on a trial basis and said, “Hey, we’ll use you for a month. We’ll see if this works for us and you need to see if it works for you,” Armstrong said. “It’s kind of a big deal bringing in all the food —these meals are running from three to five dollars — so they’re not making a huge profit margin.”
Fortunately for Basis, Armstrong believes the system is successful. She said about 70 lunches are ordered per day, just under half of the Basis student body.
Renee Fauset, the director of Mountain School, a charter located off Lake Mary Road, said they also bring in local businesses to serve lunches to their kindergarten through fifth grade students. Fratelli Pizza provides the meals for pizza days while Family Dinner, another local restaurant, sells sandwiches.
Fauset said bringing in food from outside sources works nicely for their small school that lacks a kitchen and cafeteria. The parents are also in accordance with the system because it offers healthy choices to their children.
“We just have 210 students, and it’s pretty easy to do it that way,” Fauset said. “I mean, it does put a lot on the parents, but they seem to be very willing and send very good choices, so we’re able to talk about healthy food and the parents support that, so I think it works pretty well.”
In addition, Fauset said the lunch program is one way the school can support local businesses.
“We’re small and we try to support local businesses,” Fauset said. “When we do our fundraising, that’s where we get help from, all the local businesses. So we try to support them in return.”
Like the other two schools, Ari Wilder, the dean of FALA, said having a few vendors provide food to their students is beneficial to their small size.
“We’re a tiny school, so we usually have one vendor each day – sometimes two,” Wilder said. “Otherwise, it’s hard for them to make any sort of financial profit. So, we have four different vendors that come; we have one day with two vendors and just one vendor on every other day.”
Those vendors are Mulkey’s Food Works, a locally owned truck service that makes food fresh at the school, Rachel Tripp, a parent and professional caterer, Dub’s Catering Cuisine for sandwiches and wraps, and Hot Wok Express, a local Asian food restaurant.
Wilder believes the biggest downfall with their program is the lack of variety. However, she said from a business point of view, they must be careful not to contract with too many food providers.
“I think at a bigger school, you can have 10 different vendors come, so you can have 10 different things to eat,” Wilder said. “So I think here it’s hard because I want to maintain good relationships with the vendors and I know that if I have 10 different people here none of them are going to make money and then I’m going to have no one who wants to sell lunch here.”
Roman Polvinale, the general manager of Mix, said they enjoy providing their grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup to Basis because it aligns with their business’s beliefs of local businesses and agricultural practices.
“It’s not volunteer. The parents pay for the lunches for the kids, but obviously we’re not trying to make a lot out of it. There’s not a whole lot of money in it.” Polvinale said. “We take over fresh baked cookies and real cane sugar sodas. You know, the school has different standards as far as what we’re allowed to serve, which is good. I mean it kind of fits into our food philosophy.”
Although each of the schools have freedom to choose from different vendors, all of them are required to meet state mandates regarding nutrition and serving sizes. The schools also have to be sure all of the businesses are registered with the U.S. Health Department and run background checks on the food providers.
While all three charter schools are trying to provide lower cost options to parents, the meals for each school average between three and five dollars. Also, unlike public school systems such as Flagstaff Unified School District (FUSD), charter schools do not have a subsidized lunch program.
According to the district’s website, fusd.org, they charge students $2.60 per lunch, over a dollar less than the lunches at Basis, which are around $3.75. Furthermore, for families who qualify for discounted meals in relation to their income, a lunch can either be $0.40 or even free.
However, all of the charter schools who responded said while they do not have a specific subsidized lunch program put in place due to their small sizes, but they always provide lunches to students who need them. The cost comes out of the school’s pockets.
FUSD buys their food from Southwest Foodservice Excellence, LLC, who according to their website, combine the work of their district chefs and certified dietitians to create nutritionally conscious menus.
“Our district chefs will design your menus to be creative, diverse, appealing and appetizing, while controlling food costs and minimizing waste,” the website said. “Our menus are 100 percent nutrition-focused. Our registered dietitians will ensure your menus not only meet, but exceed, the nutrient requirements for your students to grow properly.”
The FUSD menus give students a variety of options to choose from, all of which change daily. Additionally, they offer a salad bar, fresh fruit and milk to accompany all meals. For example, Feb. 6 on the FUSD lunch calendar advertises the following options approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: rosemary chicken, beef fajitas, chili dogs, and chicken chow mein.
Polvinale said his 20 years of food service experience has shown him the business aspect of food production can impact the quality.
“A lot of food corporations, especially institutional food, are all about how cheap and how fast you can get it done. So, in a lot of ways, the way that people eat and the way that people are fed in institutions is all about markets.”
For Basis, Armstrong said they are just trying to give more options to families.
“We were kind of trying to make it more of an even playing field so the charter school is not so self-selective.”
Written by Maria DiCosola
Flagstaff Business News
Youth Independent schools says
This is a interesting post to know about the food facilities are provided by charter schools.I agree with this blogger that each school has own services and facilities. Some schools have provided satisfactory food and residential facility but some of them may fail to fulfill the needs of individual. So, it is the responsibility of parents to analyze the facilities and services offered by these schools to allow then to feel comfortable and keep them healthy.