Secaucus school district in hot water over cold lunches?

Hot lunches will soon be available

Acting Superintendent Daniela Riser addresses the public at the Sept. 18 meeting of the Secaucus Board of Education.
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Acting Superintendent Daniela Riser addresses the public at the Sept. 18 meeting of the Secaucus Board of Education.

Acting Superintendent of Schools Dr. Daniela Riser has updated the public on the status of Secaucus public schools after the first few weeks of classes.

Riser was appointed at a special meeting on Sept. 8, replacing then-Superintendent Jennifer Montesano. At the Sept. 16 regular meeting, the board adopted a resolution approving an employment agreement with Riser to stay in the position until Dec. 8.

“We have been working diligently these past few months with the district administration to open our schools for the first full days in over 18 months,” Riser said. “We welcomed all students back into the district on Sept. 8. There were many smiling faces to be seen. There were a few first-day wrinkles, but all seemed to be ironed out by the second day.”

According to Riser, the first lunch period in 18 months was successful in all buildings; not so much the food.

No hot lunches?

“Through alerts to the topics posted on social media and some direct sources, the administration and I have been made aware of your concerns regarding the choices made available to your children for lunch,” Riser said.

Secaucus participates in the Seamless Summer Option offered by the state of New Jersey to provide all students with free lunch for the 2021 to 2022 school year. The district participated last year.

“We did not have full school days last year, but breakfasts and lunches were picked up periodically by parents,” Riser said.

Now that students are back in school full time, demand for the free lunch program has nearly doubled. The food service responsible for lunches is short-staffed.

“Like many other shortages we have in the district right now and through no fault of their own, Maschio’s Food Service is understaffed in dealing with the preparation of a number of lunches that are being distributed,” Riser said. “Advanced preparation is required for the lunches, which is much easier to do with a cold lunch option.”

Lunch logistics

Riser defended the three cold lunch options available at each school.

“Hot food to serve almost 1,200 students a day also poses the problem of food storage,” Riser said. “In order to meet these increased lunch demands, our current cold storage facilities on our campuses are already packed. Hot food would add to these storage problems and also require the addition of food warmers in multiple locations throughout all of the school buildings.”

According to Riser, additional cold storage is currently back-ordered and not immediately available, but the district is working on a solution.

“Despite these issues we are facing, we hear you,” Riser said. “Yesterday, our district administration met with personnel from Maschio’s to discuss the addition of hot food to our lunch options in the upcoming weeks.”

Riser said schools will begin serving hot pizzas starting Sept. 23. More hot options will be added in coming weeks.

Parent concerns

Ruby Kish, a Secaucus parent who is also running for the board in the upcoming election, emphasized the importance of communication and transparency between the district and the community.

“An example of what happens when that communication breaks down is… our students began their first day of school with the expectation that the lunch period would be a little different,” Kish said. “However, they expected that change to be manageable. What they encountered and what they were not prepared for was the meager choices that were offered to them and the lack of a hot lunch choice. As a result, many students spent their first full afternoon of school hungry.”

Kish said the lunch confusion showed that “the district failed to prepare for the return of students to a full school day” and that “the district failed to effectively communicate with parents.”

“The Road Back plan released on August 20 indicated that both hot and cold lunch options would be available,” Kish said. “I cannot understand why hot lunches were not made available from the beginning of the school year.”

Kish acknowledged that the district is working on it and that there will be a resolution, but chided the district for getting here in the first place.

‘Changes coming’

As Acting Superintendent, Riser pledged to increase communication and transparency.

“As I do my very best to fulfill the duties of this role, I want to make it a top priority to strengthen the partnership between the community and the schools,” Riser said. “That begins with open lines of communication. The administration would like to offer an opportunity for you to voice your concerns to us.”

The district emailed every family with a form, which allows parents to submit questions. It’s also posted at sboe.org, available for the next few weeks.

“Once we have received these comments, we will be meeting as an administrative team to complete a list of answers and do our very best to offer clarification and feasible solutions to all of you,” Riser said. “We will also continue to offer many opportunities throughout the school year to have your voices heard.”

Board President Jack McStowe echoed Riser: “We know that communication has got to get much better, and I believe, going forward, you will see a major change. We will be sending out information about the hot lunches, so we’ll be keeping you informed. Going forward, I think you’ll see a change in the communication with the parents and the board.”

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.