Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

March 11, 2013

Fewer students buying school lunches

Drop in meal program participation causing budget problems

Mike James
The Independent

RUSSELL — Fewer students are buying their lunches at school following adoption of new federal nutritional regulations, and that is causing some budget and management problems, area school food service directors say.

School lunch and breakfast programs are expected to be self-supporting, so when fewer meals are served, less money comes in to run the program.

That is true not only for students who would pay the full price, but for those eligible under income guidelines for free or reduced-price meals, because the federal government reimburses schools for those meals.

In the Russell Independent School District, for instance, lunch participation dropped from 71 percent to 60 percent since the same time last year, according to figures supplied by food service director Dennis Chambers.

Because of the drop, revenue is down $74,000 so far this year, Chambers said. At the same time, expenses are up $27,000, because the fresh fruits, vegetables and other more nutritious foods demanded by the regulations are more expensive.

That adds up to a $101,000 drop in the food service budget, which buys equipment and pays the salaries and benefits of workers. “We have to be self-sustaining, so a $101,000 drop is devastating,” Chambers said.

The much larger Greenup County School District is dealing with a similar drop, according to the district’s business manager and food service director, Scott Burchett.

Through January, school lunch sales were down 22 percent, and the program had deposited $91,000 less in the bank than at the same time the previous year, Burchett said.

When the school year started, Greenup had a considerable balance in its food service budget, but Burchett expects the balance to shrink by the end of the school year.

Within a year or so, if the trend isn’t reversed, the balance would disappear. Since school food programs are required to operate in the black, that means the district would have to make up the difference from its general fund, he said.

In Russell, Chambers is worried about emptying his contingency fund by the end of the next school year. “We will be tapped out by the end of 2013-14,” he said.

What appears to have happened, directors say, is that students, and often their parents, are pushing back against the new nutritional requirements, either because they don’t like the food or don’t think they get enough.

The regulations place calorie limits and add requirements for whole-grain bread products and fresh fruits and vegetables. That means less pizza, french fries and other traditional kid favorites.

Students may not think they’re getting large enough portion sizes in their entrees and may be going hungry because they don’t eat the fresh fruits and vegetables.

There also have been complaints from athletes, who often go directly from school to practice, that they need more food and more calories.

Russell is trying to deal with student finickiness by offering choices in entrees, fruits and vegetables, Chambers said. Federal reimbursement regulations require that students take at least three of five offered items, and fruits and vegetables must be among them.

Menu-tweaking is constant. For instance, Burchett said, food workers noticed students didn’t want the hot dogs as they were served. Adding sauce kept the entree within guidelines and made it more palatable to juvenile appetites.

Officials in the Ashland Independent School District noticed a definite drop at the beginning of the school year, but participation picked up as the year went on, food service director Lora Pullin said. “A lot of it was education and looking for the right products,” she said.

There also was a process of acclimation — students weren’t accustomed to fresh foods and missed the fried foods. Pullin collected input from students, parents and staff to make menu changes.

“It’s a matter of a change in behavior. Educating them to eat fresh fruits and vegetables hasn’t been a struggle. It’s almost become a habit,” she said.

Directors insist their meals are tasty and adequate and students who eat the fruits and vegetables in addition to the entrees won’t go hungry.

Lunches will continue to cost more for those who pay the full price, because federal regulations are requiring districts to at least gradually bring the full-price lunch to the same level as the reimbursement rate, which is $2.51 currently.

The regulation requires districts to hike the full-price meals at least 10 cents apiece per year until they reach that threshold.

Because food programs are operated like a business, they offer promotions in an attempt to boost sales, a school-lunch week promotion, for instance, or an end-of-the-year push.

Put into business terms, districts are looking for ways to get their customers back. If they don’t, Chambers said, there will be some hard decisions to make about staffing later on.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2652.