FARMINGTON — After gaining national attention during a social-media organized boycott against food service contractor Chartwells, Farmington High School students said their voices were heard as the school took steps to improve the cafeteria program.
Principal William Silva characterized a meeting Thursday with close to 15 students in attendance as very positive.
“We had some of the boycott organizers, so to speak, and other student leaders who we had reached out to make sure we were hearing all student voices,” he said. “Everyone contributed, it was very positive, very respectful and we talked about some of the things we’re immediately going to do.”
Senior David Casella created a Facebook page urging students to not buy food this week from Chartwells at the school. In the first week of creating the page, roughly 500 people had accepted the Facebook invitation to boycott Chartwells for one week beginning Nov. 4. While it’s hard to say how many actually participated, students said cafeteria lines were much shorter.
Prior to the boycott, about a dozen students posted photos on the Facebook page of mold on food and unappetizing entrées they said they bought at the school. A Chartwells representative said the company hadn’t seen the types of problems illustrated in the photos.
Students also said food was being thrown away when they didn’t have enough money in their cafeteria accounts to pay. In response, the high school decided two weeks ago to allow students to charge up to two meals on credit.
On the first day of the boycott Monday, students said they were removed from the cafeteria when they attempted to share food, which made them feel strongly that their remaining concerns about food quality weren’t being taken seriously.
“We did compromise on the charge policy, which is great,” senior Rachel White said prior to the Nov. 6 meeting. “What we are looking for is assurance that things are going to change.”
After discussions with administrators and Chartwells staff at the Nov. 6 meeting, White said she felt cautiously optimistic. “They seem pretty sincere. I’m impressed with what they had to say so far – basically I’m going at it with an open mind,” she said.
Casella said he feels confident that things are going to get better. “One of the changes is that they’re going to bring in is a new microwave for us, which is awesome,” he said. “We’re all pretty happy right now.”
The principal said he was not directly approached when the issue was first raised on Facebook. “I had heard about it indirectly,” Silva said, adding students should have come to him from the start. “My door is always open. We try to be as responsive as possible.”
Jill Donnelly, Chartwell’s director of dining services for the Farmington school district, said regarding student complaints about small portion sizes for a la carte items such as yogurt parfaits, the kitchen is required to follow U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines enacted in 2011. “They are able to take as many fruits and veggies that they want,” she added.
Donnelly said she eats in the cafeteria every day, and the high school received an “exceptional review” during its most recent health inspection in September.
“We have not seen or experienced what we’re witnessing on Facebook,” she said, adding that some of the students’ concerns over what food is served and how it’s prepared are easy fixes. “We listen to every concern that the students have and we take every concern that they have to heart.”
Donnelly also introduced a new executive chef, Jose Fontanez, to the high school last week. She said the previous chef left for personal reasons.
Fontanez has been with the company for 12 years and said he’s open to students’ feedback. “I’ve already spoken to a dozen students. I got some ideas from them – it’s exciting,” he said. “I’ve been doing this since high school, so their critique is very important to me.”
The principal expressed similar sentiments. “We’re open to hearing anyone’s input. The students are the customers,” he said. “We really value the student voice here.”
Chartwells, based in Charlotte, N.C., became the school districts food service provider in 2012.