He feeds an army (of students)

John Costantino is the director of food services for Marblehead Public Schools. Photo by Spenser Hasak

Into the first half of school year debuting as the food service director for the Marblehead Public Schools, John Costantino has encountered significant changes.

Before taking the position, Costantino was the culinary trainer and recipe developer for Boston Public Schools (BPS) for three years, transitioning from a big city to a small town.

The drastic change from serving 43 schools in Boston including lower-income families and homeless families to serving families who have the means to provide breakfast and lunch for their families was like “night and day” for Constantino.

“Everyone has the means to provide breakfast and lunch to their children, and their children aren’t leaving here on a Friday and not eating again until Monday,” Constantino said. “So that to me, was almost more eye-opening.”

“It was something that I didn’t necessarily think of at the moment. While working for BPS, but like switching to Marblehead I was like, wow, like how big of an impact we were on those families and those kids and making sure that they were able to eat every day,” he added.

Prior to the pandemic while working for BPS, Costantino’s priorities revolved around free and reduced lunches for students. This is because all students are under a Tier One status in the state of Massachusetts, meaning no matter their backgrounds, they are eligible for free breakfast and lunch.

“I remember when I started at Boston, there were kids that didn’t know what specific fresh vegetables were, like cucumbers or peppers, because they never saw that because they just could never afford to have those things in their households. So educating the kids on those types of foods was very eye-opening to me. I wasn’t aware that that’s how some people never had fresh vegetables whereas in Marblehead everyone’s food conscious,” said Costantino.

“I feel like food education starts at a very early age and we see that with our students. When we’re serving food, they ask questions that I would have never received from a student in Boston. I had a student last week ask why we didn’t have more drinking water available at lunch because they knew milk, chocolate milk, was unhealthy,” added Costantino.

All of the Marblehead Public Schools offer water fountains for students to fill their water bottles with, but Costantino had never seen that in Boston.

“It’s kind of a catch-22 because parents are heavily influencing their children’s diets,” he said.

“We had about 5,000 or so homeless students. So that’s pretty much double the entire student body of Marblehead. So, all the scales are so much different. So yeah, obviously, making sure the kids eat while they’re at school is super important. It seems like they don’t necessarily come in for breakfast because they’re eating breakfast at home with their families prior to coming,” said Costantino.

Massachusetts is one of five states in the U.S. that provides completely free breakfast and lunch for its students. Although it is now temporary, initial talks about becoming a permanent fixture in Massachusetts are in the works.

While in Marblehead, about 80 percent of the student population is being served for lunch, with a lower rate for breakfast.

“I think that has to do with the options that we’re providing and pretty much we’re getting out that breakfast and lunch are free to all students. I send out the monthly menus and I probably get an email or two every single month from parents saying ‘Oh, I didn’t know that the food was free.’ So, you know, it’s something that they don’t necessarily think about and that’s okay, but I push for students to eat within our schools,” said Costantino.

For Costantino, having students eat breakfast in schools releases the pressure on parents getting ready in the morning and prepping their children’s meals. Having the students for breakfast gives them a lot of face time with the cafeteria staff, creating a welcoming space.

“It helps us figure out exactly the best way to feed these children too, because they’re not scared. They come in and they know it’s a welcoming place. So, it’s really unique in that sense,” said Costantino.

Each month, Constantino develops a menu based on the regulations and guidelines of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). He follows the caloric intake standards that differentiate between breakfast and lunch, and grade levels to make sure there is non-repetitiveness.

“I follow a guideline of a range that the USDA dictates that this child at this age should be consuming. There is some overlap. So that’s why I don’t do five separate menus for five separate schools. Because the age ranges of workout where I can still serve the same meal and it fits into the same category on either end,” said Constantino.

A request from parents and one of the students’ favorite meals on the menu is breakfast for lunch once a week. Costantino is open for changes, “I’ll try something different, two or three menu days out of the month to see if it works and if it works, then we continue to use it more and if it doesn’t work, then we’ve only wasted one menu day on it and we can just switch it out,” he said.

One of the biggest changes for Costantino to the food service includes replacing Dominio’s Pizza with Sal’s- a local company to two of the five schools. To fit into the nutritional guidelines whereas Domino’s did not.

When it comes to balancing nutrition and taste, Constantino follows the guidelines recommended by the state verifying the bread is at least 50 percent whole grain, eliminating as much sodium from the meals, and watching the ingredients to make sure they’re as minimally processed as possible.

“It’s not always the easiest thing, because we don’t have the ability to charge more if say burgers go up in price, so we may have to go with the cheaper option, which is not always the best option,” said Costantino.

“But there’s always a balance with that and like I have to follow when, producing the meal for the month. I have to make sure that they’re getting a specific amount of green vegetables every week, yellow vegetables, and vegetables, so there’s a lot of work that goes into making the menu that is the finished product. But as we move as I move forward in my role, scratch cooking is going to become more prevalent on the menu,” he added.

Costantino is aiming for a lot more minimally processed foods moving away from ultra-processed foods and bringing in products that are more into the guidelines that fit with the USDA.

“Instead of having just a plain waffle that was just a normal, everyday waffle we now use a whole wheat waffle. So, the taste does change a bit. So, you do have to give time for the students to adapt as well. But overall, the process and the result is there,” said Costantino.

“You’re educating students and the parents at the same time. So, it’s very interesting in that sense,” he added.

Costantino has in mind implementing more diverse, and better lifestyle choices for students, including vegetarian options, that haven’t been offered in the past.

“On a taco day, we can offer, ground beef, and we can offer some sort of protein or we can do something with tofu, which is what I worked on at Boston public,” said Costantino.

“During my recipe development process, we did a lot of things to bring in those items because those items help with cost because they are a cheaper, cleaner product and it helps with the educational aspect of it too. To teach everyone’s consuming the food they like is actually good. It’s not just this gross thing that people think it is, ” added Costantino.

With inflation, last November, Costantino paid $120 for a case of lettuce that would typically cost him $37 , almost a $90 difference, “when prices go up, I absorb the cost. So I have to do my best to utilize what’s called entitlements and that money that we receive from the USDA and DECI to pay for food for next year and in that process, that’s how I built a menu.” said Costantino.

The federal government sets the reimbursement rate on school lunches and breakfasts, when it comes to paying three times the amount of money for a product, they will still pay the same set amount of money, “It’s not like I can go in like a restaurant, and all of a sudden beef goes up. I can charge you more as a consumer to eat that burger. I don’t have that ability. So on my end, a lot of the menu is based on product, product availability, cost, things like that,” said Costantino.

“So, it’s really really tough to find, healthy products because they are still expensive. But there is funding available for these products and that’s what I use to get in produce, like fruits and vegetables, minimally processed meats, and things like that,” he added.

Costantino has become more creative in how he uses the funds to lower the cost of the foods to make the operations work more smoothly but he is also facing another challenge.

Also in charge of the hiring process, Costantinos biggest challenge has been working at about 50 percent capacity.

“I have a lot of vacancies in my system and unfortunately it has to do with the districts around us being able to pay staff more money than we are here. And that’s a big challenge because I can’t bring in enough people to do what I want to do,” he said.

“That was very dark at the beginning, I’m working on getting more staff and so now we’re getting towards the end of the school year. So that presents us with another challenge because a lot of people aren’t going to want to come and work for a few months and then not work the entire summer,” added Costantino.

When Costantino start his role as the food service director for Marblehead, he thought that he was going to have the ability to make a lot of big changes quickly,  but rather he chose to write the wheel the first year, to know the people get to let people get to know him.  To then figure out exactly what he needs to do moving forward to make things work and make the town happy, the staff happy, and the students.