The School Board voted 5-0 to release the high school from the Federal Lunch program, and to commit $50,000 to renovate the school’s cafeteria.
If food sales at the high school increase as a result of the change to the Free Milk Program, food service may be able to absorb the cost of the renovations without the assistance of the School District, according to Business Administrator Peter Curro.
“The bottom line is, if we go from the Federal Lunch Program to the Free Milk Program, we get off the calorie restrictions – we get off all restrictions,” he said.
Amanda Venezia described the caloric restrictions under the Federal Lunch Program as “a really big numbers game.”
By moving to the Free Lunch program, Food Service will be able to give kids more of what they want and add items that don’t fall within the parameters of the Federal Lunch program.
“Right now, we can’t do a frozen yogurt, but that’s something we can offer (under Free Milk). The markup is huge on that. We can make a profit on a la carte items that don’t translate to the National School Lunch program,” she said, noting homemade pasta primavera, which she has found is very popular at Exeter High School, can’t be served under the Federal Lunch program because it doesn’t meet the protein requirement. In addition to approving the shift to the Free Milk program and cafeteria renovation, the Board voted to increase the cost of school meals to $2.75 at the high school, $2.25 at the middle school and $2 at the elementary school; and to cover a potential $40,000 reduction in federal reimbursements for free and reduced lunches if Food Service revenues do not cover the loss.
In addition to losing reimbursement for high school commodities and reduced lunches – the federal government will continue to subsidize free lunches – Curro said the District may also lose adequacy funding, as the formula that determines the amount school districts receive is based on free and reduced lunch participation.
Despite the anticipated losses, the Board agreed that leaving the Federal Lunch Program is the only way to recapture interest in meals at the high school.
Curro said renovating the cafeteria will create the space needed to introduce popular options, such as a taco and salad bar.
Venezia said as the cost of meals rises next year, the quality and quantity of meals offered will also increase.
Sophia Mirageas, Student Council liaison to the Board, said she is not convinced renovating the cafeteria will increase participation in the meals program, noting she and most of her friends prefer to eat food they bring from home.
“I’m not sure knocking down the wall for more space will give us an advantage,” said Mirageas, who also doesn’t think the addition of a salad bar would result in a substantial increase in sales.
Participation in the school lunch program has dropped from 48 percent in 2005 to 33 percent, and the District is operating under a $50,000 deficit, according to Curro. “We’re not getting the federal reimbursement for those meals, or cash in the drawer and money for reimbursable items is not coming from the feds, so something needs to be done,” he said.
In researching other programs that are seeing greater success, Curro said they have learned the quality of food and presentation are important.
“Students are not looking for old-style food or facilities,” he said. If participation rates improve as a result of the changes, Curro said he anticipates the program will stop running a deficit and see a return of about $25,000, “if everything came out perfect.”