On the day FM spoke to Gerald Lyons, director of foodservices for the Hudson County Schools of Technology (HCST) in New Jersey and principal of HCST’s KAS Prep High School, a couple of students walked into his office asking if they could just have plain buttered pasta for lunch rather than what was on the day’s menu. He agreed readily and later, after the interview, strode off to see that it was prepared.
It was a perfect example of how Lyons approaches his role as foodservice director—give the kids what they want as long as it’s still healthy
It’s not easy because he has to accommodate different dietary requirements for different groups, ranging from Eastern Orthodox Christians and their fasting regimes to observant Muslims and their requirements for halal meals. A particular challenge is students of the Jain faith, which prohibits the eating of anything grown underground. That includes garlic, which leaves out anything prepared even with just garlic powder.
“I don’t want anyone leaving here thinking we haven’t tried to address their diet,” Lyons declares. “We have a big Indian population of vegetarians, other kids who have opted to be vegetarian. We have a Muslim group who doesn’t eat pork products, but then we also have kids who’ll eat anything that’s not nailed down and kids who say they only eat chicken nuggets and pizza. We try to make sure we’ve accommodated all the kids who are here.”
Pizza made with the help of the school’s own culinary students as interns is a popular daily lunch option.
He knows this is an important part of the school day beyond academics.
“I don’t know who is going home and not eating,” Lyons explains, “so I never stop them. I can afford to do this and the fact is, for a lot of our kids, I know they get their two meals a day here. If they stay after school, they may be getting three meals a day here.”
To do that requires a menu approach diverse and flexible enough to meet all the different needs.
“Every day we have a full salad bar with about 40 items and what we’ve recently done is make the first half of it gluten-free also,” Lyons says. “We also make our own pizzas. We have a great situation here with our own kitchens and our [culinary] students as interns. We recently put $2 million into our culinary classroom and kitchen in our sister school in Jersey City and we just moved into a new $165 million building here with a brand-new cafeteria, where we have the option to do a lot of things.”
The housemade pizza is on the menu every day and prepared with the assistance of the school’s culinary students, as one of the foodservice staffers also works in a local Italian restaurant as a pizza maker and has been teaching the students the art of pizza making.
Pizza is on the front lines of Lyons’ approach to incentivizing reimbursable meal sales over a la carte, because pizza—obviously a popular item—is offered both as an a la carte option and as part of a reimbursable meal.
“To accommodate the kids, the state has said you have to get one slice of pizza and then [fill the meal out with other components],” Lyons explains. “Well, I looked into it and found that I’m not exceeding the calories or carbs if I give them two slices of pizza, so we started selling pizza a la carte for $2.50 a slice, but if you get the full meal it’s $4.25—two slices, a juice, a fruit and a milk—so most of our kids now take two slices [instead of the marginally more costly two a la carte slices].
Lyons says he can do that and still remain financially viable because he makes full use of commodities such as the cheese for the pizzas.
“We work very hard to get the kids to buy full meals,” Lyons stresses. “If it was up to them, they’d buy two or three hash brown patties for breakfast. So I tell them, ‘They’ll cost you $1.25 apiece so $3.75 for three but for $2.75 you can get a hash brown patty, eggs, sausage, juice, milk and a fruit.”
Besides the salad bar and pizza there are usually three soups a day at lunch with at least one being vegan or vegetarian, plus a hot item of the day with a vegetarian alternative, such as tofu in place of beef or turkey to accompany nachos. Another popular regular choice on the menu is parfaits made with yogurt, fruit and granola so that they satisfy multiple meal component requirements.
Parfaits made with yogurt, fruit and granola satisfy multiple meal component requirements.
A share table system lets students leave components like juice, milk and packages of fruit for others if they’ve purchased a reimbursable meal but don’t want all the components.
Overall, the meal program at KAS serves about 300 breakfasts and 700 to 800 lunches. Breakfast sales are hampered by the countywide nature of the student population, which means many travel significant distances to get to school, often arriving just in time for classes but not to get to the cafeteria.
Lyons also regularly interacts with his young customers, constantly asking what they like and don’t like, which leads to the kind of comfort level that had the girls coming to his office to ask for pasta for lunch.
HCST is a countywide vocational school program with its enrollment determined by application from county residents. KAS Prep, along with another school called High Tech, is located in the brand-new Frank J. Gargiulo campus in Secaucus.
There is no reimbursable after-school meal or snack program at the Gargiulo campus, but Lyons does run a late-afternoon/early evening retail operation in the cafeteria featuring choices like burgers, hot dogs, pizza and so forth for students who are staying for various activities. Unlike most regular districts, HCST runs multiple bus schedules after school for the different activities such as colleges classes, LEAD classes, clubs and other activities, so buses leave daily on a staggered schedule at 5,6 and 7 o’clock.
The after-school meal program is mostly staffed by student interns, which assists in developing their job skills and giving them experience besides earning them $9 an hour.
The building also has evening classes for adults and Lyons has set up a retail grab-and-go snack/coffee bar that basically runs at break-even but serves as an amenity and even an attraction.
“The nighttime people have noticed that they are getting better attendance as people are coming in earlier knowing they can get a snack and coffee if they come a little earlier and then get something at the [class] break. It’s a win-win situation.”