Local schools deal with high cost of food

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Districts average around $50,000 in the red each year

Local schools seem to all be in the same boat when it comes to the high cost of food service.

Exeter typically runs $50,000 in the red on food, Cassville is close behind, Southwest was over $50,000 last year and Purdy falls about $29,000 short.

Food service in public schools, including breakfast and lunch, is a three-pronged process.

"Food service has three main parts," said Richard Asbill, Cassville superintendent. "Those individual parts are somewhat difficult to manage equally, as they all have different impacts."

First, food costs can vary.

"We buy food to feed around 1,700 children on average, per day," Asbill said. "We do get USDA commodity support for some food, but a lot is priced per the market. In addition, the USDA has new food service standards and requirements for what type and quantity of foods that can be served by the school. There are schools that contract food service programs, but their buying power is much greater."

Another factor is demographics.

"School food services are driven by the USDA options for free or reduced price eligibility programs," Asbill said. "The school will receive reimbursement on a meal if the student qualifies for that service. The price the USDA provides us helps offset the opportunity to keep meal costs low to all our students."

A third factor is labor costs.

"The cost of employees to prepare meals can vary within the school," Asbill said. "For example, an employee with two years experience versus 15 years experience."

Southwest has had the same struggle, running a deficit in excess of $50,000 last year.

"I would say it is not unusual for districts to run in the red with their food services departments," said Bob Walker, Southwest superintendent. "In our case, I think there are two main reasons: One, we try to keep our meal prices as low as we can. Two, the foods that the federal nutrition guidelines require to be served are more expensive to purchase.

"This is disappointing because we made adjustments during the 2009-2010 school year that brought our program closer to breaking even over the next few years. However, when the federal nutrition guidelines were revamped, we've seen a gradual increase in our food services deficits since. To offset this trend, I would speculate that most districts will need to review their meal price structure. Also, I think if the feds would, within reason, relax some of the nutrition guidelines, districts' food supplies costs would be less."

For Exeter, food costs run, on average, in excess of $50,000 in the red, but the district chooses to focus on ensuring each child receives a hot, healthy meal each day.

"It's been an ongoing item of discussion," said Ernest Raney, Exeter superintendent. "Our cafeteria supervisor works really hard to find the best prices on food. The board has always looked for ways we can run as efficiently as we can, but the number one goal is providing a nutritious, hot meal at breakfast and lunch for students every day because some of our kids don't always get that at home.

"It's one of those things we're not going to make any sacrifices on the quality of food we provide our students. We'll continue to work with families who are struggling to pay their lunch bill, but our students won't go away hungry. That's our commitment."

Raney agreed specific factors affect food costs, affecting each school's budget the same.

"It's the cost of personnel, and the cost of food," he said. "It's the cost of doing business, and it's also government regulations," he said. "But, we'll continue to try to find ways to cut costs as long as it doesn't impede the quality we provide our students. We could serve other types of food that would meet the requirements, but wouldn't have as good a taste."

Raney said the district could cut costs in some areas, but it would affect quality.

"There are cheeper foods we could purchase," he said. "We don't have to serve the type of meals we serve. With the choices we have with the regulations that are required, we're able to provide meals that do have good flavor and give our kids the opportunity to try healthy foods.

"Some contract out their food services, and through buying power, they can sometimes get food at a lower cost. I believe that it's more difficult to control the quality of the food you're providing students."

By contrast, Purdy was only $7,000 in the red two years ago, and $29,000 last year, but that was because they invested in an upgrade to their cafeteria and kitchen to accommodate changes in food service regulations.

"We typically take a small loss and that's generally on lunch fees," said Steven Chancellor, Purdy superintendent. "We choose to help kids out as a district. I don't have a good guess on why our food costs are lower. The agreement with Springfield Grocer is that as long as we buy 92 percent of our food from them, they add menu planning and compliance as a value-added service. All the food we get, besides commodities, comes from them. We are buying at whatever the market rate is at the time. We have a nutritionist on staff who does all our menus. We get to choose what we offer. We've learned, kids don't like X-Y-Z, so can we get something else, and they do the paperwork to keep us compliant. It's such an effective arrangement, we're extremely satisfied. We probably throw away as much food as other districts because of the government rules."

While each district continues to look for ways to save on food costs, their focus remain the same.

"We all have the same goal in mind, and that's a good meal for our kids," Raney said.

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