by Richard Creaser
School children in Orleans County are going to see more whole grains, dark green vegetables, fresh fruit and skim milk in their hot lunches starting in the fall.
Administrators and lunch cooks are going to see more paperwork.
That’s because of an effort to prove that local school programs are not being subsidized by free and reduced-price lunches. Most students in the county are eligible for the lower-priced meals.
These changes are some of the most significant in the last 15 years, said Laurie Colgan, the director of Child Nutrition Programs for the Vermont Department of Education.
“The rationale for the changes are to ensure that free and reduced reimbursements are not subsidizing paid meals as well as to conform with the new dietary standards,” Ms. Colgan said.
Schools in the Orleans Central Supervisory Union (OCSU) have a high rate of eligibility for free and reduced lunches at nearly 66 percent, while in the North Country Supervisory Union (NCSU) that rate falls just shy of 59 percent, according to data from the Vermont Department of Education.
Free meals are reimbursed at the rate of $2.77 while reduced meals are reimbursed at a rate of $2.37. Paid meals are reimbursed at a rate of 26 cents per meal.
A family of four earning $29,055 a year or less is eligible for free meals. A family of four earning $41,348 or less is eligible for reduced price meals. A reduced price meal is a meal whose total charge is no greater than 40 cents.
In the OCSU district, Barton Academy and Graded School has the highest rate of eligibility for free and reduced lunches at nearly 80 percent. The highest rate of eligibility in the NCSU is in Troy where nearly 79 percent of students qualify. Eligibility rates for Craftsbury Academy and Craftsbury Elementary School sit at a combined 50 percent.
Many schools, both locally and throughout the state, charge less than $2 for paid meals. The concern at the federal level is that free and reduced reimbursements are used to subsidize the paid meals.
“In order to equalize the meal prices you would need to charge somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.50 for each paid meal to equal the reimbursement rates,” said Glenn Hankinson, business manager for North Country Schools. “I think you would find it quite difficult to charge that much per meal without seeing participation decline. There is that delicate threshold where, if you raise it too much, the revenue you gain by higher prices is lost by lower sales.”
The meal pricing guidelines produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees and sets standards for school nutrition programs, anticipate a 5 percent decline in meals served for every five-cent increase in meal prices, Ms. Colgan said.
“But those same guidelines also anticipate that at least some of that loss in participation will come back over time,” she added.
As a result of this pricing mandate, schools will be obligated to perform an annual review of their pricing structure.
As long as any money used to keep paid meal prices low comes from non-federal funds, schools can avoid being compelled to raise their prices. Many of the region’s smaller schools are already doing this. Transfers from the general fund to the food service program are simply a fact of life.
“We have no illusions that our lunch program could exist without support from the general fund,” said Amy Leroux, chairman of the Irasburg Village School Board. “We know that there is only so much families can afford to pay and the only way to make that work is by supporting the lunch program through our budget.”
In 2010, the Irasburg Village School transferred $23,985 from the general fund to the school’s food service program. That transfer represented nearly one-third of all revenue for the food service program. In the same year anticipated state and federal meal reimbursements totaled $40,021 while sales accounted for an anticipated $10,400.
Supporting the food service program through the general fund is not unique to Irasburg school. Indeed, as a factor of size and economies of scale, many schools must support their hot lunch program through the general fund.
“If you don’t have that critical mass of students, it becomes very difficult to balance sales and expenses,” Mr. Hankinson said. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult, especially for our smaller schools, to actually balance the food service budget.”
The Lowell Graded School District budgeted a transfer of $5,000 to its food service program in 2011. In Lowell 73 students out of a total population of 116 students are eligible for free and reduced price meals. Total state and federal revenue is $64,324. In Morgan, the food service program was particularly heavily subsidized at E. Taylor Hatton School. With 20 of the school’s 33 children eligible for free and reduced lunch the general fund provided $16,231 of support against $13,295 in state and federal revenue.
During the same period Glover Community School budgeted $23,097 in support against $30,450 in state and federal revenue. According to figures from the Vermont Department of Education only 47 percent of Glover’s 127 students are eligible for free and reduced price lunches. Lake Region Union High School underwrites its program to the tune of $38,000 against $82,450 in state and federal reimbursements. Nearly 58 percent of Lake Region’s 374 students qualify for free and reduced price lunch.
Violations could lead to price increases
There is no mandate from either the federal government or the state compelling schools to operate in a self-sustaining manner, Ms. Colgan said. It’s a decision that’s made by each individual school board. If food service programs are found to be in violation of the lunch price equity regulation, schools will be compelled to increase the price charged for paid meals. The only negative repercussion for running a deficit lies in accruing larger disbursements from the general fund to offset the losses, she said.
That said however, the state is encouraging supervisory unions to re-examine their food service programs and consider group buying pools to help reduce food related expenses.
“Given the state of the economy food vendors are looking at ways to increase their sales,” Ms. Colgan said. “The climate out there is ripe for schools to participate in buying pools to help cut down their costs and still receive direct to door deliveries. What businesses were or were not willing to do even a few years ago has changed dramatically.”
Reducing food costs would provide some relief as school lunch programs struggle to get back into the black. One of the major costs associated with delivering the program would not — labor.
“It’s not uncommon for labor costs to occupy the lion’s share of the food service budget,” Ms. Colgan said. “It’s actually pretty typical for labor costs to occupy 50 to 60 percent of the total budget.”
The cost of labor is something the Irasburg school board is keenly aware of. Despite labor consuming a large portion of the budget, the quality of the service is worth the added cost, Ms. Leroux said.
“As a parent I couldn’t be happier with the food my kids are eating in Irasburg,” Ms. Leroux said. “The days of chicken patty Friday are gone and I’m glad to see them go.”
The administration of school nutrition programs is the great unseen labor cost, Holland Elementary Principal Linda Phelan said. Preparing and serving meals and cleaning up afterward is only part of what Terry Lumbra does. Ms. Lumbra has provided food services at Holland Elementary for the past 36 years. The administration and paperwork involved with hot lunch programs continues to grow, requiring ever greater amounts of time to complete.
“Even doing it on the computer takes quite a lot of time,” Ms. Lumbra said. “It’s not getting any easier.”
Those days may be headed even deeper into the mists of time once the new school nutrition standards go into effect on July 1. USDA has restructured the meal plans, placing a heavier emphasis on whole grains, dark green vegetables and fresh fruit. In addition, schools will no longer be allowed to serve 2 percent or whole fat milk.
“The fluid milk requirement has struck more of a chord in Vermont than in many other states,” Ms. Colgan said. “It’s probably reaction based on our close ties to the dairy industry.”
Serving low-fat and non-fat milk will take some adjustment, Ms. Colgan said. The switch to skim milk can be especially jarring to children who are used to getting their milk from the bulk tank, she said.
“It truly must be cold for skim milk to taste good,” Ms. Colgan said. “The flavor profile changes a lot when you taste it ice cold or otherwise.”
One of the challenges of the new meal component plan is to offer foods compatible with the USDA guidelines while providing a selection that appeals to children. Fortunately schools have a number of options to guide them. One of the greatest assets is the knowledge of the food service staff.
“They are the ones who can tell you that lima beans probably won’t be as popular as green beans almondine, for example,” Ms. Colgan said. “Many schools are also offering tasting portions that allow students to try something or having taste tests with students.”
Taste tests are something that Ms. Lumbra holds every month at Holland Elementary. The goal is to present new foods that meet the quality standards set forth by USDA while, at the same time, providing meals that kids will actually want to eat. The results are mixed with some foods clear winners and others, not so much.
“The black bean brownies were not so good,” Holland fifth grader Christopher Jacobs admitted. “But the pesto pizza and the Mexican pizza were good. The pizza here is wicked good.”
One change that has caught the students’ attention was the inclusion of more whole grain foods into the daily menu. Whole wheat pizza crust met with tepid reviews from Holland’s fifth graders but whole wheat pasta fared better.
“With the sauce and the cheese on the spaghetti, you don’t really notice it much,” Joe De Sena said. “It’s healthier for us.”
The mere mention of healthy foods was not, much to this reporter’s surprise, a turn-off for the kids. In fact, according to Holland sixth-grader Noah Gonthier, eating healthy can be pretty tasty.
“The corn that comes out of the school garden is really good,” he said. “I don’t like the cabbage as much but Ms. Lumbra does make a really good coleslaw with it.”
“Cabbage tastes too much like Brussels sprouts,” Carlo De Sena said. “We have been getting more sweet potato than regular potato and that’s pretty good.”
Students have also experimented with a hummus dip for their daily vegetables. The ubiquitous Mediterranean dish was universally admired by the Holland students.
“I’d like to try that again,” Treylen Lamos said. “I’d also like to have more chocolate milk but we only get that two times a week.”
The state is encouraging participation in Farm to School programs as well as buy local programs, Ms. Colgan said. School boards can employ numerous inventive strategies to provide more food either from local farms or school gardens through the use of parent volunteers to harvest crops during the summer.
It may also be possible to have local meat producers offer their product below retail with the difference absorbed as a charitable expense, Ms. Colgan said. Purchasing ground meat or smaller cuts could also help lower costs while retaining the benefits of locally sourced meat.
“The school food service program really has come of age,” Ms. Colgan said. “These are challenging times but I think we have the creativity and the will to meet that challenge.”
contact Richard Creaser at [email protected]