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N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, spent much of his two-hour town hall in Haywood County last week addressing the topic of education.

Davis spoke to a crowd of more than 50 people in the historic courthouse in Waynesville. He didn’t shy away from taking on what has already emerged as a leading issue in state elections, a debate that has Democrats accusing Republicans of going too far in making cuts to education last year.

“I didn’t go to Raleigh and say, ‘Hot dig I get to cut education,’” he said.

Davis said the cuts were necessitated in part by the loss of federal stimulus funding, which was intended as a stopgap to help states through their budget crises.

“The state is also broke,” Davis said. “Schools are going to have to take budget cuts just like everybody else.”

The Haywood County School system has lost $8 million and more than 120 positions during the past three years.

Davis spoke out against Gov. Beverly Perdue’s proposal to raise the state sales tax three-quarters of a cent to help offset the education cuts. The senator received cheers when he mentioned Perdue’s decision not to run for reelection.

Davis also said he opposes another form of education revenue — the lottery. The state gives money earned from ticket sales and from unclaimed prizes, is distrubuted to school systems based on a set state formula.

The money supplants school funding rather than supplements it as it was intended, Davis said. Critics equate the lottery to a tax on the segment of the population that plays.

“I think it’s a stupid tax,” he said, adding that less than half — about 40 percent — is actually earmarked for education. The rest is used to pay out winnings and operational costs associated with running the lottery.

Bill Nolte, associate superintendent for Haywood County Schools, agreed that schools count lottery money as part of their budgets rather than as padding.

“We haven’t really gained teachers because of the lottery,” he said.

Nolte said legislators should reward schools that show improvement and growth and should consider giving public schools some of the same flexibility allowed to charter schools.

Charter schools are not subject to some of the same state and federal restrictions as public schools. For example, while unionized, tenured teachers tend to staff public schools, charter school instructors are often not unionized. Charter schools also tend to hire younger teachers who receive smaller salaries than their more experienced counterparts.

Private and charter schools survive with fewer resources and produce better test score, said Beverly Elliott, a Haywood resident who is part of the conservative local 9-12 project.

“The answer is not in more money. The answer is in wisely using the money we send to Raleigh,” she said.

North Carolina was recently ranked 49th in the U.S. for per-pupil spending.

Davis said it could afford to cut some of its upper level administrative positions within the state education department. He cited one job that pays six figures to a person who orders periodicals.

People trust teachers with their children, but the state does not trust them to buy the cheapest supplies, queried Davis.

“There are just all kinds of stupid regulations you have to deal with,” he said.

 

A grab bag of issues

Davis beat out incumbent John Snow, a Democrat from Murphy, two years ago and will face him again in this year’s election.

Following the redistricting, fellow Republicans handed Davis a harder re-election battle. The new district is comprised of the seven Western counties, meaning Davis lost the Republican stronghold Transylvania County and inherited the Democratic-heavy Haywood County.

During the forum last week, Davis spoke briefly about jobs, saying that the government should consider ideas that would benefit everyone. If a company cannot afford to keep a full-time position but could still pay an employee for 30 hours of work, the government could chip in the other 10 hours of pay a week, he suggested. The person would still have a job, the employer would still have an employee, and the government would foot a smaller bill, he added.

Among the mostly conservative-leaning town hall attendees’ other concerns were unfunded state mandates, the gas tax, gun rights and voter IDs.

Chuck Beemer, 71, expressed his worry that the state is requiring too much from counties without offering any funding solutions.

“If you can’t fund it, don’t do it,” Beemer said. “We can’t spend more than you have. You’ll be come the federal government.”

Davis reminded participants that he was once a Macon County commissioner and said that unfunded mandates were “the bane of my existence.”

However, as co-chair of the State and Local Government Committee, he said, he will be able to affect change for county leaders.

Beemer also asked Davis about the nearly 4 percent increase in the state gas tax.

North Carolina has one of the highest gas taxes in the U.S., which prompts some drivers to travel across state lines for cheaper prices, he said.

The tax rate is recalculated twice a year based on a formula involving wholesale gas prices — something the state should take another look at, Davis said.

“We are going to have to revisit that formula,” he said.

A couple of attendees thanked Davis for voting for the Castle Doctrine, which allows people to use deadly force against someone who breaks into their home. The law was spread to vehicles and workplaces last year. However, some did ask if more could be done to expand gun rights.

People should be able to protect themselves anywhere they go, Davis said.

Toward the end of the meeting, Mike Clampitt, a resident of Bryson City, asked Davis to work toward passing legislation that requires voters to display a photo ID before casting their ballot. This helps prevent someone from voting multiple times or voting using someone else’s identity.

“All I want is fair legal and honest elections,” Clampitt said.

Perdue vetoed a voter ID bill passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature this past summer, saying it disenfranchise eligible, legitimate voters.

People once again lined up at the Biltmore Square Mall in Asheville last week, but this time they weren't waiting for hours to see Santa Claus. Instead, they were looking for a belated Christmas gift — a job.

The mall was the site of the largest job fair in the mountains, boasting more than 1,200 open positions. About 2,000 people showed up for the event, most of them members of the 10 percent of unemployed residents of North Carolina.

An older gentleman in a grey three-piece suit looked overwhelmed as he surveyed the seemingly never-ending rows of employers and possible employees that filled a vast majority of the mall.

Barbara Darby, who helped run the event put on by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Coalition, said she was not surprised by the turnout.

SEE ALSO: Stuck in a rut: Too few jobs coming on line 

"We are well aware of the large numbers looking for work," said Darby, a member of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board.

People traveled from all around Western North Carolina — Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Yancey, Madison, Polk — in search of a job or a better opportunity.

"There are really no county lines when it comes to finding jobs," said Mark Clasby, executive director of Haywood County's Economic Development Commission. "People will really commute where the jobs are."

About 15 percent of Haywood County residents travel outside the county to work, Clasby said, and at least 3,000 people commute into Haywood County for work.

The dismal job market has forced some unemployed individuals to move.

During the past year, Tonya Turner, 40, packed up her belongings and moved from Haywood County to a place in Mars Hill with her son. She is looking for "a new start," she said.

Turner has been jobless for a year and has applied for more than 20 jobs during that time. She is looking for a position as a receptionist or in medical billing and has experience as an administrative employee.


The Potential Hires

While many participants put a face and a name on WNC's more than 8 percent unemployment rate, a number of people with current jobs attended the fair looking for better benefits or for a second or third job to help pay their bills. Some proactively applied for positions, knowing they might soon receive a pink slip.

"It's time to find me something better," said Josh Grooms, a 23-year-old Canton resident.

Grooms works for a roofing company in Fletcher, near Asheville, but the benefits do not include health insurance — a costly bill to foot on one's own.

He was hopeful, however, that he would find a new job at the fair.

"They have plenty of decent jobs out here," Grooms said.

There was no age, social class or race that predominated the fair. Quickly glancing around, anyone could spot a teenager or young 20-something as well as people well into their 50s and 60s. The dress code ranged from jeans, T-shirts and boots to suits and ties.

Terry Gant — one of the baseball hat, T-shirt and jeans people — said he was looking for "anything."

The Haywood County resident is a former employee of Volvo Construction Equipment.

The Volvo plant in Asheville closed in March 2010 and shifted its operations to some of the company's other manufacturing facilities around the world.

The move left Gant and 227 other people without jobs. Gant, 46, said he hasn't worked since.

"I am just ready to get back to work," he said.

Gant has not been sitting on the sidelines waiting, however. He went back to community college and will soon have his associate's degree in industrial systems technology. The degree, plus his welding and electrical experience, will make Gant much more marketable and increase his chances of getting a job.

Like Gant, Darren and Melinda Sims, also causalities of the Volvo plant closure, decided to return to school. The out-of-work couple from Fairview won't graduate until next year but knowing the trouble they will likely face, wanted to get a head start on the job search. Darren, 41, wants to finds a job in industrial systems, and Melinda, 40, is looking for an administrative position.


A noble effort

On the outskirts of the melee at the mall were applicants such as Ken Childers from the Whittier area in Jackson County, who was filling out packets and reading information collected along the employment trail.

Childers worked at a steel mill for 27 years before starting his own trucking company in 2005 — just two years before the recession began. He was not able to sustain his business as diesel prices skyrocketed up to $4.75 a gallon in 2007.

The National Bureau of Economic Research, a private, nonprofit research group, marked the start of the recession as December 2007. And although the group declared the downturn over as of June 2009, the U.S. is still beset with high unemployment rates and fears of a double-dip recession.

"It's tough out there," said Childers, 55. "You almost have to have two jobs today."

Similar to many fair attendees, Childers is looking for anything he can get. He is even willing to move from his family's 100-year-old farm for a job.

Childers was somewhat pessimistic about the prospect of finding something at the fair, saying there's a "lot of people for them to choose from."


The Employers

Many area businesses are wary of the economy and are only adding one or two jobs at a time.

"I think businesses are very cautious," Clasby said. But, "The economy is slowly improving overall."

With such slow growth, the addition of 35 jobs at Sonoco Plastics in Waynesville is considered a boom. In the past, that number would have been considered low.

"That is kind of a big number all of the sudden," Clasby said. "That's not the norm unfortunately."

Sonoco, which makes plastic trays for frozen food dinners, was among the more than 80 employers at the job fair.

"We are excited to be growing," said Vanessa Crouch, human resources manager at the Waynesville plant. "It's an employer's market right now."

Because the country is still experiencing high rates of unemployment and few companies hiring, employers can be more selective with whom they hire.

Sonoco received 175 applications for seven recently filled positions, Crouch said. The company is hiring only a handful of new employees at a time so as not overload itself with trainees, she said.

Among the open positions are supervisory staff, quality technicians, maintenance personnel and packers.

Amidst the many Asheville area employees at the jobs fair was Mission Health, a healthcare provider with centers throughout WNC, including Angel Medical Center in Franklin.

As of the early afternoon, Gloria Perry, a hiring specialist with Mission Health, said "easily 300" people has already visited their table.

"It breaks your heart sometimes," said Perry, whose husband is actually unemployed. "Everybody's so desperate."

As of Monday, the Mission Hospital website listed 197 available full-time and part-time positions at its various facilities in Western North Carolina — a testament to the health care field as one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of the economy. The medical group's biggest need is certified nursing assistants, Perry said, later adding that she had met many displaced or soon-to-be-certified nursing assistants at the fair.


October 2011 unemployment rates

Haywood County 8.6 percent

Jackson County 8 percent

Macon County 9.6 percent

Swain County 12 percent

Source: N.C. Employment Security Commission. October is the most recent month for which data is available.

When it comes to connecting farmers with students and substituting common cafeteria fare with fresh, local produce grown here in the mountains, Jackson County Schools stands at or near the forefront of Western North Carolina school systems.

Jackson County has encouraged students to actively grow lettuce used in the school’s cafeteria, utilized grant money to help introduce elementary school children to fresh vegetables and tapped into nutritional expertise at Western Carolina University and area community colleges. School cafeteria workers have even been taken on field trips to visit the local farms where some of the produce they use comes from.

On a recent weekday at Smoky Mountain High School, students such as Jesse Ammons were busy in the school’s greenhouse testing the waters for the airoponics lettuce they produce. The roots of airoponics lettuce are neither in soil nor water, but are misted with water droplets.

These students are part of an unusual local foods program here in Sylva that involves those in the school’s agriculture classes learning to grow salad for themselves and other students to enjoy in the school’s cafeteria. “Mustang salad,” they call it, in honor of the school’s mascot.

Ammons is busy, but he takes the time to acknowledge briefly that he does enjoy the hands-on experience he receives in this particular class.

“I do like it,” Ammons said before rushing off to complete another assigned task.

 

‘Win-win’

“It’s a win-win situation,” said Jim Hill, the schools’ nutritionist. “This has really helped us in ‘branding’ a salad. That means consumption of salad goes up. Just getting the word out that students’ friends have helped grow the salad gets them more interested.”

Agriculture educator Jeremy Jones said there’s been quite a learning curve to growing the lettuce. It required fieldtrips to Haywood Community College, among other things, to see it being done correctly.

The lettuce project at Smoky Mountain High School is in its third year. To serve the lettuce, Jackson County’s school system had to gain OKs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Jackson County’s health department and the state Department of Public Instruction.

The students can’t grow enough lettuce to fully supply the demand of fellow students, so Hill has reached out to local farmers to help supply additional homegrown products for the cafeteria. This has helped foster ties into the local agriculture community.

Steven Beltram and wife Becca Nestler, who operate Balsam Gardens, are working with the schools in Jackson County. It hasn’t been easy circumnavigating all the federal and state regulations involved, Beltram said.

“But Jim Hill has a major interest in making it happen,” Beltram said. “So we’re hoping our work with Jackson County Schools can be sort of a pilot project and model for other school systems in the region.”

Beltram and Nestler grow organic vegetables, plus raise and sell small livestock such as pigs, turkeys, ducks and chickens off their small, diversified farm. The couple just had their first child and has a special, but understandable, interest in seeing the farm-to-schools program work.

This led them to explore renting greenhouse space at the county’s Green Energy Park. Beltram and Nestler hope to start growing hydroponics lettuce there starting this year and sell the resulting produce to Jackson County Schools.

“That’s an idea we are trying to make happen,” Beltram said.

 

WCU, ASAP also involved

‘Mustang Salads’ might be the flashy calling card for the local foods program in Jackson County. But there’s much more going on than just that. The schools are also working with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project to introduce kids to local food through school gardens, farm field trips and cooking demonstrations. There are “tasting” events at Cullowhee Valley School on a regular basis, where kids sample a variety of vegetables, presented in fun ways, exposing them to tastes they might not otherwise enjoy.

“It’s phenomenal what ASAP is doing here,” Hill said. “We don’t have the staff or financial ability to do and fund the amount of nutrition projects they are now helping us with.”

Specifically, ASAP was awarded a three-year grant of $600,000 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to integrate farm-to-school course work into the teaching college curriculum at Western Carolina University. The purpose is simple but complex: to get the future teachers of America thinking about how local foods and ultimately, get school kids eating good, locally grown foods.

Cullowhee Valley School, just across the street from WCU, has served as a learning lab for the WCU initiative.

“The students from WCU can come see farm-to-school in action,” said Emily Jackson, program director of ASAP. “They can see first hand children cooking in the classroom, children gardening, taste tests in the cafeteria.”

In addition to the pilot program at Cullowhee Valley, ASAP is working with the Head Start program run by Mountain Projects for pre-K children.

“This is new for us,” said Maggie Cramer, communications coordinator for ASAP, said. “We want to arm (students and educators) with healthy cooking techniques, and how to cook using local ingredients.”

Few restaurants could afford to lose $1 on every meal they serve, but in Haywood County school cafeterias, that’s the reality faced every day.

It costs $3.75 to fix a lunch, including the food and labor. But, the federal government pays just $2.79 for students receiving free or reduced lunches — the sector that makes up the majority of kids going through the lunch line.

The loss of $1 per lunch adds up fast considering there are 5,300 lunches being served in Haywood County schools every day. That’s a loss of nearly $100,000 a month.

The plight is universally shared by every school cafeteria.

“You have to buy your food, your equipment, pay your employees and their benefits — you tell me what restaurant could do that at $2.79,” said Sherry Held, the nutrition director of Macon County Schools.

To plug the hole, schools peddle a la carte items — chips, cookies, ice cream, Gatorade and the like. In all, the sale of snacks generates a little more than $1 million a year in Haywood County to cover the losses on the lunch side.

Granted, the chips are the baked variety only and the cookies and ice cream are low-fat. But, they still aren’t healthy per se.

“I would love not to even put those things out there, but we have to offer them to make up that difference,” said Allison Francis, the nutrition director for Haywood County Schools.

In Swain County, a la carte snacks bring in $150,000 a year, money the school lunch program simply can’t afford to do without.

“They are forced to sell items that students will buy in order to generate money,” said Lynn Harvey, the director of child nutrition for the state of North Carolina.

Absent adequate funding from the federal or state government, the burden to supplement school lunches would fall to local school systems. But they, too, don’t have the dollars to spare.

“Most local boards of education would prefer to put their education dollars in the classroom,” Harvey said. “We need to help our decision makers recognize that adequate meals at school is a tremendous part of academic success.”

There is one school district in the state that has put its money where their students’ mouths are. Asheville City Schools subsidizes the school lunch program so elementary school cafeterias don’t have to sell snacks. Water, 100-percent fruit juice and animal crackers are the only supplemental items found in Asheville City elementary schools.

“The school system was willing to kick in funding to make that happen,” said Beth Palien, the nutrition director for Asheville City Schools. “We want to do what is in the best interest of the child.”

She estimates they are giving up at least $75,000 a year.

That’s something that’s simply not possible for most school districts, despite their hearts being in it.

“I would love to see the meals be part of public education like text books and transportation and not have to sell that other stuff,” Francis said.

Francis is grateful that in Haywood County, the local school system covers indirect costs such as electricity, which certainly helps.

Still, Haywood County is losing about $200,000 dollars a year. Right now, the balance is coming from savings, squirreled away in better times. That fund has been depleted to just $600,000 though and clearly won’t last forever.

 

Options on the table

Cost constraints are the primary hurdle faced by school cafeterias in serving healthier, better quality food.

Cafeteria workers wish they could serve apples instead of apple juice, baked potatoes instead of fries or even fresh green beans instead of canned. Francis recalled one school principal who asked why they couldn’t buy raw chicken breasts to grill instead of serving frozen chicken nuggets.

It costs 16 cents for four ounces of juice, compared to 30 cents for a whole apple, for example.

“Unfortunately a lot of healthier made-from-scratch items cost more. It takes more time to prepare so you have to have more labor,” Francis said.

That’s a luxury Francis doesn’t have. The workforce at the 16 school cafeterias in Haywood County has been cut from 120 to 107 in two years. Francis luckily was able to make the cuts through attrition rather than lay-offs.

Haywood cafeteria workers have seen a cut in their pay in an effort to make ends meet. They used to spend teacher workdays cleaning and repairing kitchen equipment. But this year, they will stay home on teacher workdays and lose nine days of pay as a result.

 

Baked, not fried

Another hurdle to healthier food is the right kitchen equipment — which, in the end, also comes down to money.

At Jonathan Valley Elementary in Haywood County, a fryer still claims coveted floor space in the kitchen, but it hasn’t been used in three years — at least not as a fryer. Until someone hauls it away, it’s been pressed into service as a counter for hot pots and pans.

Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties have phased out fryers almost entirely during the past few years.

“We have no fryers in our school cafeterias at all,” said Diane Shuler, the nutrition director in Swain County. “They are baked, steamed, broiled, boiled.”

It wasn’t cheap, however. Cafeterias had to replace their fryers with giant industrial ovens, lined with enough racks to warm hundreds of corn dogs and potato wedges at a time.

“A new oven is $15,000 to $16,000 dollars,” Francis said.

Discontinuing fryers also means more prep work at a time they are trying to cut back on labor.

“We are feeding such a larger volume of students in such a short period of time, to bake enough fries you have to start a lot earlier,” Shuler said.

In Haywood County, Francis budgets a measly $60,000 a year for equipment. Francis guards the money with her life for the inevitable equipment repair or breakdown.

The dishwashers in the schools date to the 1970s, but it would cost $35,000 a piece to replace them — hardly in the realm of possibility until they absolutely won’t function, she said.

“We joke that we use duct tape to hold everything together. We patch it up as long as we can,” Francis said.

 

Dollars and cents

Half or more of the student body at most schools in WNC qualify for free or reduced lunch. In Macon County, 60 percent of the student body is in the program. Here’s how it works:

•  For students on free lunch, the federal government reimburses the school for $2.79 a lunch. The student pays nothing.

• For those on reduced lunch, the government reimburses  $2.39. The student pays just 40 cents.

• For students who pay out-of-pocket, most school districts charge $2 for at the elementary level and $2.25 at middle and high school. The government kicks in 28 cents for out-of-pocket students.

While there’s little the school system can do about the reimbursement rate from the feds for free and reduced lunch students, it begs the question: why not, at least for out-of-pocket students, charge a price commiserate with the true cost of the lunch?

Out-of-pocket students account for just 10 and 20 percent of the total lunches served in area schools, but charging more for their plates couldn’t hurt. Or could it?

“We would be out pricing ourselves. Parents can’t afford to pay that much,” Francis said.

Raising the cost for out-of-pocket kids would be akin to shooting themselves in the foot, Francis said.

School cafeterias benefit from an economy of scale. It’s better to have those out-of-pocket students buying lunch at the current price than not at all, since the fixed costs of labor and overhead are the biggest expense behind that lunch — not the cost of the food itself. Francis estimates out of the $3.75 she has in every lunch tray, only $1 of that was actually spent on food.

“The more people that participate the better off we are,” Francis said.

But like it or not, schools will be forced by federal pricing mandates, starting next year, to raise the cost of lunch for out-of-pocket students by 10 cents a year during the next several years until it more closely matches its reimbursement level.

Francis had always wanted to go back to school on the side to get her master’s in nutrition. But, now, she is reconsidering which degree she really needs the most.

“The longer I have been in this job, I realize it takes an MBA,” Francis said.

 

Lunch programs by county

Haywood

• Total annual budget: $4.86 million

• Percent of budget spent on food: 34 percent

• Amount made selling snacks: $1 million

• Federal reimbursements: $2.3 million

• Self-pay lunches: $900,000

• Average number of lunches served a day: 5,365

• Percent that get lunch: 80 percent in elementary, 79 percent in middle, 65 percent in high

Macon

• Total annual budget: $2.5 million

• Percent of budget spent on food: 46 percent

• Amount made selling snacks: $400,000

• Federal reimbursements: $1.575 million

• Self-pay lunches: $450,000

• Average number of lunches served a day: 3,150

• Percent that get lunch: 77 percent in elementary, 66 to 71 percent in middle and high

Swain

• Total annual budget: $1.129 million

• Percent of budget spent on food: 35 percent

• Amount made selling snacks: $126,500

• Federal reimbursements: $642,000

• Self-pay lunches: $178,000

• Average number of lunches served a day: 1,443

• Percent that get lunch: 83 percent in elementary, 77 percent in middle, 66 percent in high

It was only 11 a.m., and already 60 fidgeting children had streamed down the lunch line at Jonathan Valley Elementary School, eagerly eying the pans of corndogs and beans, a steady barrage that would continue in five-minute waves until, some 300 lunches later, each class had eaten.

At the end of the serving counter they paused and peered into the milk cooler, pondering whether to grab chocolate or regular, while those lucky enough to have spare change in their pocket might make a dive into the most coveted bin — a freezer full of ice-cream.

Here’s what the kids don’t know. The chocolate milk is fat free, the ice-cream is low fat, and as for the corn dog? Try turkey dogs wrapped in whole-grain dough.

“We try to sneak it in there,” said Allison Francis, the nutrition director for Haywood County Schools.

There’s actually a term for that in school nutrition circles: “stealth health.”

SEE ALSO: Strained finances pose a hurdle to healthier school lunches

Despite the age-old stereotype, school lunches are the most mulled-over, fought-over, thought-out meal kids are likely to eat all day.

“School food historically gets a bad rap,” said Sherry Held, the school nutrition director in Macon County. “But where can you get a meal as nutritious as ours?”

Held and her counterparts are quick to rally to their own defense.

“People say school meals are not healthy, but let me tell you something, they are,” said Diane Shuler, the school nutritionist in Swain County.

But it isn’t easy.

“It gets kind of complicated,” Shuler said. “People think all I do is feed kids.”

Meeting a litany of federal standards yet fixing something kids like — particularly within the dour budget at their disposal — is a challenge to say the least.

“We probably all need counseling, but it is rewarding,” Held agreed. “If the students are eating good food, it is going to help fuel their minds and bodies.”

School lunches are undoubtedly a big business. While school lunch planners at the local level agonize over their weekly menus, trying to shoehorn all the food groups into a meal kids will eat, giant food manufacturers are employing teams of lobbyists to work the halls of Washington, ensuring pesky details like the health of children don’t stand in the way of bringing their products to market.

Despite the powerful interests behind fried tater-tots and crinkle fries, the federal government is moving slowly but surely toward healthier school lunch trays.

National media made great hay out of the fight over school lunch standards last month — a now notorious debate over whether pizza constitutes a vegetable.

New federal standards for school lunches will be unveiled in January, something that has school nutrition directors waiting somewhat nervously.

“We are about to see a sweeping overhaul in the child nutrition program,” said Lynn Harvey, the state director of child nutrition. “We know it will include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”

It will undoubtedly cost more. The federal government will ante up an additional six cents per lunch to help defray the costs, but Harvey has heard estimates that the cost of providing a single lunch will increase by 56 cents.

 

Money problems limit solutions

Several years ago, North Carolina took matters into its own hands. No more waiting on the federal government to make school lunches healthier. The state would come up with its own guidelines.

Unfortunately, many of the lofty goals — like requiring whole grains and banning fryers — were ultimately side-lined because they cost too much. Instead of standards, they were downgraded to mere “recommendations.”

“The problem is those standards were never funded by the North Carolina General Assembly,” said Harvey.

The standards were tested in 134 elementary schools across the state, but when it came time to make them policy, without funding to help schools make the transition, they were deemed impossible and unfair.

Healthy foods not only cost more and require more staff time to prepare, but school districts would have to replace equipment such as fryers with ovens — something that would cost a single county hundreds of thousands in new kitchen equipment.

At the time, Francis worked in one the few school districts to pilot the standards contemplated by the state. One in particular sticks out in Francis’ mind: the idea of meeting the USDA food group quotas for each and every lunch. Previously, schools counted servings of fruits, vegetables, protein and so on during an entire week and took the average — rather than applying the exact food group standards to each meal.

“It was next to impossible. All of us were in tears trying to plan menus and make it work,” Francis said. That idea was soon dropped.

Unfortunately, so were the other standards.

But, local school districts have voluntarily implemented the recommendations from the state anyway — roughly 80 percent in all. Fruit plays a starring role in desserts, from apple crisp to sliced pears. Tacos are made with ground turkey. Fried foods have been phased out almost entirely.

All the milk is either skim or 1 percent. Salad dressings are low-fat.

In Macon County this year, all chicken products are now whole-muscle chicken, rather than processed parts.

It’s something Shuler would like to do in Swain County as well, but the cost is prohibitive. Whole-muscle chicken products are simply too costly, she said.

One of the biggest pushes has come in whole grains. Bread and buns are whole grain, even the pizza crust. It means brown rice instead of white. Whole-wheat pasta is being slipped into dishes. But, it’s a balancing act.

“If it doesn’t taste good, even if you follow all these guidelines, they aren’t going to eat it,” Held said.

It’s the challenge all school lunch directors face.

“You can make something as healthy as you possibly can, but if it is not something they like, it is going to end up in the trash can,” Francis said.

Francis understands picky kids. For years, she stuffed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in her purse before going to out eat with her kids. There was no way she was going to order and pay for something on the menu her kids wouldn’t eat anyway.

Meanwhile, food companies have seen the writing on the wall. From Sara Lee to Kellogg’s, they offer special wholesale lines for school cafeterias that have lower fat, sugar and salt contents than the grocery store varieties.

Sure you might see pizza on the school menu but looks can be deceiving.

“Our pizza has whole-wheat crust and reduced fat-cheese and turkey pepperoni,” Francis said.

These facts are strikingly absent from the printed lunch menu, however.

“We don’t really want to tell children they are eating whole-grain pizza. We just tell them, ‘You get pizza today!’” Held said.

 

‘Baby steps’

Held has learned the importance of baby steps in the five years that she has been with Macon County Schools.

“We try to ease them in to making better choices, like whole-wheat spaghetti and slowly eliminating the not so healthy choices,” Held said.

They are also learning what simply doesn’t take. Kids are savvy. They check the school lunch menus, and if they don’t like what’s on it, they bring their lunch that day. The cafeterias can ill-afford to fix food that no one will buy.

Students have summarily rejected whole-wheat mac-and-cheese for example, Held said. In Swain, they learned that lesson the hard way.

The first time Swain County put whole-wheat mac-and-cheese on the serving line this year, kids eagerly loaded it onto their trays but were less than enamored with it once they sat down and started eating. Hoping once more, they went got it again the next time it made a lunch line appearance.

But the third time it turned up on the menu, they wouldn’t touch it. The school cafeteria had to crank out 130 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — the staple substitute when standard menu items are rejected — as kids came through the line.

The problem, however, is that Swain County ordered copious volumes of whole-wheat pasta at the beginning of the year that still has to be used up.

“Live and learn, live and learn,” Shuler said.

Ultimately, the hope is that the good eating habits introduced at school will bleed over into their home life.

“If you daughter came home and said, ‘Mommy I tried sweet potato wedges at school today and they were really yummy,’ you might say, ‘Really?’” Held said. “We do the best we can with the time we have with them.”

 

Free breakfast!

Any K-12 student eligible for free or reduced lunch can now get breakfast at no cost — yes, that’s totally free — thanks to a new state initiative that recognizes kids don’t learn as well when they’re hungry.

 

School lunch by the numbers

• $2.79: federal reimbursement for students on free lunch

• $2: school lunch for elementary student paying out of pocket

• $3.75: average cost of preparing a lunch in Haywood County

• 16 cents: cost to school for 4 ounces of juice

• 30 cents: cost to school for an apple

• $15,000-$20,000: cost of an oven to replace a deep fryer

• 35 percent: portion of school lunch budget spent on food

• 65 percent: portion of school lunch budget spent on salaries and overhead

Western Carolina University students likely will shell out an additional $399 in tuition and fees to attend school next year, an increase in dollars that some on campus said will be hard for them to come by.

It’s likely to be most difficult for students such as Kayla Damons. A Tennessee resident who transferred to WCU last year, Damons faces the daunting task of paying higher out-of-state tuition requirements.

Damons, a biology major, said she expects she’ll be some $30,000 in debt after gaining an undergraduate degree. A tuition and fee hike, she said, certainly won’t help ease that burden.

“It’s really kind of scary,” Damons said, taking a short break to chat from her job at the Mad Batter restaurant in Cullowhee, where she works to pay her way through school. “But then there’s nothing you can do about the cost if you want an education.”

It’s not just students who are worried. Mad Batter owner Jeannette Evans said she believes there’s a constant trickledown occurring in the local economy, and that a tuition and fee hike at WCU also won’t help local businesses such as her restaurant.

“It seems you have to do more and offer more just to stay at the status quo,” such as offering additional menu items and keeping earlier and later hours, the 14-year restaurant owner said.

This year’s expected increase follows campus-wide discussion on the issue among students, perhaps the first time that sort of direct budget participation by the student body has taken place here. The University of North Carolina Board of Governors must approve WCU’s proposed tuition and student fee hike, however, before it becomes policy.

With the proposed changes approved by the trustees, WCU’s total cost of attendance in 2012-13, including on-campus housing and the most-popular meal plan, would be $11,775 per year for a typical N.C. undergraduate, according to WCU spokesman Bill Studenc.

 

The decision wasn’t unanimous

T.J. Eaves, student body president, helped broker something of a compromise on the proposed increase. Eaves and Sam Miller, vice chancellor for student affairs, co-chaired a campus committee on the proposed tuition and student fees.

The increase easily could have been steeper than the 3 percent eventually arrived at. And some trustee members said, for the long-term well-being of the university, that it should have been.

Severe financial constraints — WCU has seen the state cut more than $32 million since the 2008-09 fiscal year  — have left the school scrambling to pay bills. WCU isn’t alone. The UNC system, because of budget cuts across North Carolina, authorized universities such as WCU to begin to “catch-up” with rates charged at similar-type institutions.

A study by the UNC General Administration showed that WCU is charging $1,360 less per year for tuition than the “least expensive quartile of peer institutions.”

Under a graduated plan approved by WCU’s trustees by a 9-2 vote last week, 15 percent of the $1,360 “catch-up” increase would be implemented in year one, 20 percent in year two, 25 percent in years three and four, and 15 percent in year five.

Two of the trustees urged the university to play catch-up over four years instead of the five agreed upon. Trustee Pat Kimberling said that would add an additional $48 to each student’s bill annually, for a $447 increase.

“The job of the Board of Trustees is to look after the long term well-being of the university,” Kimberling said. “The students who voted on this proposal will be gone … sometimes, in a custodial position, you have to make hard decisions.”

Trustee Carolyn Coward, who joined Kimberling in voting against the adopted recommendation, added that she believed “that we need to take advantage of this opportunity as quickly as we can, because we may never have this opportunity again.”

 

Listening to the students

But Trustee Wardell Townsend said the board needed to show students they were willing to listen.

“The students are not just our wards, they are consumers. And they are paying for a product,” Townsend said, adding that by accepting the students’ compromise proposal, the trustees “tell the student body that they are truly invested and that we truly hear them. They spoke; we made the adjustment.”

And that, Townsend said, would result in a “true dialogue” among administrators, the Board of Trustees and the university’s students.

What went unsaid is that by adopting the student-forged compromise, the board of trustees would endorse a new method of leadership being instituted at WCU under new Chancellor David Belcher. He took over this summer with promises to build transparency and cooperation into the system by including all stakeholders in university issues.

An expected rubberstamp by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners to build a new auditorium and gym at Smoky Mountain High School took a brief — but wild while the ride lasted — turn this week.

Commissioners have already expressed support for the $10.5 million project and by all indications, were poised to sign off this week on a $500,000 architectural contract.

Commissioner Doug Cody instead suggested that the county’s leaders give consideration to an even grander concept. Cody said he’d been waking up early in the mornings lately stewing over. Cody suggested combining the gym and auditorium into a multi-purpose arena that could host events with the potential to draw tourists.

“I’m asking the indulgence of the school board and my fellow commissioners here to explore that option,” Cody said. “A high school play isn’t going to fill your hotels, it is not going to fill your restaurants.” But, an events arena might, he said.

Cody’s suggestion received the welcome of a bottle fly landing on a newly baked cake. School board members, sitting in the audience with county school administrators, assumed their best blank expressions, but some unhappy murmurs erupted.

Commissioner Joe Cowan spoke out against the idea, saying that chorus, band and theater students deserve their own fine arts center just as much as athletes deserve a gym.

“We’ve got a plan here that’s been in the making for 35 years. It looks good; it’s what the school board says that they want,” Cowan said.

When everything shook down, commissioners simply voted 5-0 to approve the construction designs as originally presented by educators. Cody ultimately joined in the vote to approve the design contract.

“You know when you’re whipped,” a visibly frustrated Cody said.

Cody wasn’t left totally high and dry on his proposal. Fellow GOP party member Commissioner Charles Elders did attempt to place girders under his sinking colleague, asking forcefully but somewhat obscurely: “This is a bad economy … when are we going to bounce out of it, and who is going to pay for it?”

In an interview after the meeting, School Board member Elizabeth Cooper emphasized to The Smoky Mountain News that her board’s members did deeply appreciate the county chipping-in the required funds. Her fellow board member, Ali Laird-Large, said she was “ecstatic” that the project can now move forward.

Laurie Oxford’s department is getting smaller; some of her former co-worker’s offices sit empty.

Oxford, an assistant Spanish professor at Western Carolina University, spoke at a public forum about university cuts Monday on how multi-level reductions have affected the Arts and Sciences department, which has eliminated several faculty positions and all of its Chinese classes.

“Wherever the money is, it’s not in Arts and Sciences,” Oxford said, half-joking.

Losing a person means more than simply having one fewer coworker.

“They mean considerably fewer class choices (and) in general, a much less effective program,” she said.

Oxford warned the audience of more than 200 students, politicians, professors, administrators and other community members that soon other departments will begin to look like the Arts and Sciences if states and universities continue to make sweeping cuts. WCU administrators must cut about $30 million from next year’s budget.

Larger class sizes, higher tuition, fewer course offerings and laid-off faculty members brought the crowd together.

The forum was part of a statewide, student-led “Cuts Hurt” movement that attempts to lay out what the decline in education funding really means. The approved state budget will cut more than $400 million statewide in higher education spending.

The budget cuts passed by the Republican-led General Assembly were “as extreme as they were unnecessary,” said Gov. Bev Perdue, in a video to attendees of the WCU forum.

Perdue vetoed the budget bill earlier this year, but the General Assembly overrode her veto.

“You’ve seen these cuts, and you understand the damage that has been done to the core of North Carolina,” Perdue said.

Like colleges and universities across the country, WCU has faced its own budget crisis and had to raise tuition and make across-the-board cuts in order to balance its budget. Last week, university administrators presented their recommendations for tuition and fee increases to its Board of Trustees. They had originally planned to raise tuition by 17 percent during a four-year period but changed those numbers after meeting with students.

“We heard you, and we went back to the drawing board,” said Sam Miller, vice chancellor of Student Affairs.

Instead, tuition will increase by 13 percent during a five-year period. When combined with fees, the total cost of attendance will increase by almost 7 percent.

“We think that it is still unfortunately higher than we’d like to do,” Miller said, tempering that sentiment by adding that the increase will help balance the budget and maintain academic quality.

Several students spoke during the forum about how tuition increases affect them.

Emily Evans, a single mother and senior at WCU, said she knew that university administrators were doing their best to minimize the impact of the budget cuts but bemoaned the need to increase already high tuition costs.

“When is the last time your Pell Grant went up?” Evans asked.

Students must take out more loans to cover the cost of education. Student loan debt in the U.S. will surpassed the $1 trillion mark this year.

“This is a big problem, not just for students like me,” Evans said.

Some students are forced to put their education on credit cards, which have high interest rates. Fewer students will ultimately graduate as college becomes tougher to afford.

“Anybody in this room could predict that those students aren’t going to finish,” said N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill.

Lawmakers have turned their back on education and that needs to change, he said.

“We have got to turn this state around. It’s going the wrong direction,” Rapp said.

Throughout the event, speakers urged students to register to vote and to create videos of themselves talking about why education is so important to them and how they have been affected by the cuts. The videos will be posted to the “Cuts Hurt” Facebook page.

“People will listen to you,” said Andy Miller, a WCU student and one of the event organizers. “Your voice matters and important, important people are listening.”

Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, is leading a bipartisan call, asking the joint super committee to spare nothing in its cuts to the U.S. deficit.

“It will be heard throughout the world that we can do something together,” Shuler said in a phone interview, “and work for the united good of this nation.”

A Nov. 2 bipartisan letter signed by 100 members of Congress asks the super committee tasked with recommending budget solutions in Washington to cut $4 trillion rather than the mandated $1.2 trillion.

Analyses by multiple economic, partisan and bipartisan groups say the U.S must cut its deficit spending and place the amount of the cuts near $4 trillion, said Shuler.

The letter is not specific about what should be trimmed but states that the committee should keep all types of mandatory and discretionary spending and revenues.

“You can’t do one without the other,” Shuler said. “It has to be a combination of both.”

The committee, comprised of Senate and House of Representatives members, must create a plan by Nov. 23. Failure to do so will result in across-the-board cuts in 2013.

No compromise means “the political parties have won, and America has lost,” Shuler said.

Shuler has staked himself out as a moderate in his seven years in office, despite his formal label as a Democrat. He is also a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate Democrats in Congress that claim to rise above the political fray.

The letter was co-authored by Congressman Mike Simpson (R-ID) and signed by 100 members of Congress, including David Price, Howard Coble, Mike McIntrye and Mel Watt.

“We write to you as a bipartisan group of representatives from across the political spectrum in the belief that the success of your committee is vital to our country’s future,” states the letter. “We know that many in Washington and around the country do not believe we in the Congress and those within your committee can successfully meet this challenge. We believe that we can and we must.”

“Occupy Sylva” on Saturday looked and sounded a lot like a Democratic-party function, but with a twist. The message wasn’t necessarily about voting Democratic, though speakers, particularly political office holders, certainly worked that wish into speeches when their moments came to grab the microphone.

The bigger message, and what seemed to have motivated the more than 60 people gathered on Main Street Sylva more than party politics, was about stopping corporate greed, creating jobs and not limiting wealth to a privileged few in a nation with such vast resources at its command.

This was Sylva’s contribution to the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement. The leaderless movement started one month ago in New York City, with protests spreading nationwide and beyond. Occupy Sylva, Occupy Asheville, Occupy Seattle … even Occupy Helsinki, Occupy Rome, Occupy Berlin and Occupy London.

Sylva’s occupiers waved mostly homemade signs at passing traffic, receiving either toots of horns in support or blank looks from motorists as they swung their cars by the water fountain that fronts Main Street where the protesters gathered.

The signs read, “Corporations are not people,” “Get money out of politics,” “No more predatory capitalism,” “Jobs not cuts.”

No tent city emerged in Sylva as in other Occupy events — after about an hour, everyone wandered off, many to area restaurants to grab a bite to eat before heading to their homes. No clashes with police occurred, either. In fact, if there were any Sylva officers keeping an eye on this group, they were deep, deep undercover — there wasn’t a blue uniform in sight.

While small-town civility ruled this particular Occupy event, the people who gathered were clearly serious in their intentions: They were one voice in demanding that change, real change, must take place.

“We are not a poor country. Our money is just in the wrong place,” said Marsha Crites, who attended the event.

Kurt Lewis, a member of the Young Democrats at Smoky Mountain High School, was somewhat disappointed that few people in his age group showed up. He held a sign that read, “Wall Street is America’s largest casino.”

“They need to care now instead of caring later, before it is too late,” the 17 year old said of his fellow teens.

This being Jackson County, where a preponderance of WNC’s literati call home, poems were of course read, too. Ben Bridgers, retired from attorney work this year, said he’s turned to writing as a means to funnel his growing frustrations with what’s taking place nationally.

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” Bridgers told the crowd, before reading aloud a few poems that spoke to why he believes this country is in trouble.

The Occupy Sylva event looked quite a bit like the left’s version of the Tea Party movement, though the speeches and political aims couldn’t be more different.

Political junkie Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University professor who teaches political science, noticed and enjoyed that irony, too. He turned out to observe the nation’s latest grassroots movement at work in small town WNC.

“It’s very interesting,” Cooper said. “Both (groups) are saying they are fed up, but they have such radically different solutions.”

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