School Lunch Participation Drops, District Mulls Opting Out

School District Business Administrator Peter Curro and Food Service Director Nancy Faucon gave the school board an update on the lunch program, with the warning that it continues in the red.

Curro said that for FY 14 they expect to lose between $25,000 and $30,000.

And while participation in the lower grades has not been as much of a problem, they are considering opting out of the federal lunch program at the high school.

“The national school lunch program began in 1946 when it was determined that men entering the service were underweight,” Faucon said. “That’s when the typical type A school lunch was born. That means we served meat, fruit, vegetables, milk and bread with every school meal. Then a few years later we were allowed to claim for reimbursement meals that had only three out of the five components, as long as all five components were offered. The largest change was in 2010, when on the advice of the Institute of Medicine, (the program) changed many of the nutritional guidelines that we are instituting today.”

Faucon said that they are accountable for every calorie for every age group.

“We are required to serve four or five different vegetable groups on a weekly basis, we are required to maintain records on how much sodium and how much fat is available for every school meal,” she added. “All of these requirements have cost the program a lot of money, and starting two years ago, we must offer three of the five components, but one of the components must be a fruit or vegetable, and that has in many cases (caused) our participation to drop, based on not forcing a child to take something that they don’t want.”

Faucon said that at the elementary level they do pretty well in getting all the kids to take a fruit or vegetable, and middle school is doing better, but high school participation dropped from 48 to 32 percent as a result of the requirement.

Curro said that from a revenue standpoint, high school and middle school participation continues to drop.

“Compounding that is that enrollment is also down,” Curro said. “Not only is the student population dropping, but the rate of students using the program is also dropping. We have had price increases for the past three or four years and that has almost kept up with revenue, but not quite. We actually had more revenue in 2008 than you do now.”

Curro said that from 2008 to 2013 the district lost 100,000 reimbursable meals, while operating costs have been fairly stable. “The only thing that’s up a little bit is equipment repairs,” he said. “We still have some old equipment that we’re working our way through, and you’ll see in the Capital Improvement Plan that we have a couple more to go and we’ll be in better shape than we are now.”

 He said that for the past few years, they have kept $5,000, in case something happens. “At year end it is required by federal law that any operating losses be transferred from the general fund,” Curro said.

Curro noted that student bad debt is also a problem and said the city of Boston is sitting on $50,000 in student debt in its lunch program.

“We don’t have quite that much but it’s an issue, no matter what school district you’re in,” Curro said, adding that they get calls from other districts asking how Londonderry is handling the debt problem. When Salem called asking about it, Curro responded that Londonderry was going to ask Salem the same thing.

“Everyone is trying to figure out the best way to balance between students eating and not having a cash flow problem with the lunch program,” Curro said.

He noted the financial stability benchmark is 3.5 percent of gross revenue and once the district attains financial stability, the annual price increases will no longer take place. Curro said the program won’t be financially stable until FY 17.

Curro said some parents aren’t paying $2 for lunches and are instead paying $4 because athletes staying after school for sports are going back for doubles. “The parents are getting hit with double cost and the students are trying to eat as much as they can because of the long days,” he said.

Curro said they had considered leaving the federal program at the high school, instead going back to the “old days” and the earlier portions. “We knew we would lose a portion of the federal commodities and we knew we would lose a portion of federal reimbursement and we were pretty close to break even, but then we were told that adequacy grant money and other funds also come into play,” he said. “We’re not even close so we’re stuck with the program.”

Board member John Laferriere asked if Curro was anticipating price increases for two more years and Curro said that would be the case for at least two years.

Board member Nancy Hendricks said she doesn’t want to see the program run in the red.

Board member Steve Young said he found it ironic that the program started because servicemen were underweight.

“And now in our government’s infinite wisdom they have modified the program so that our athletes, our musicians that practice in uniforms made of wool, can’t get enough calories to sustain them during the day,” he said. “I’m going to violently disagree with you on your forecast. This program will not be positive in two years. The problem we have here is the government continues to tighten down on these issues.”

Young apologized to the students for going hungry and said that was “unacceptable.”

Superintendent Nathan Greenberg said the question that should be asked is can the district be partially in and out of the federal lunch program. “I’m not so sure you can be just part out and part in,” Greenberg said.

“I believe they will allow us to do it, (but) they will take away as much as they legally can,” Curro said.

Curro asked the board to give them some time, “until July or so. “Give us some time to pitch some ideas around,” he concluded.

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