Nutrition Services Challenged by Mandates

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Thursday January 01, 1970

Students in the South Burlington School District (SBSD) have been treated to a number of changes to their school lunch program this year. Although some were hesitant about the new foods being offered, many have come around and discovered they actually do love polenta fries. From lobster rolls to pasta bars, the options have expanded exponentially and in turn, so have sales. At an April School Board meeting Director of Nutritional Services Rhonda Ketner delivered a mainly positive presentation that showed where the program is expected to end the year and what challenges lie ahead due to impending Federal mandates. 

First, the good news. Sales continue to climb! The meal counts at lunch continue to run 12 percent higher district-wide than in the previous year. Specifically, there have been significant increases at both the middle and high schools. Adult participation continues to trend higher and now makes up about 4 percent of the total lunches served,  which is up from 1 percent in the past. A major goal of the Nutrition Services department this year was to increase breakfast sales for both students and adults and this has been achieved with significant success. The revenue through February 28, 2014 was $15,397 compared to losses of $46,113 and $40,582 in the past two years. 

The net income projection for year end is between a positive net of $20,000 and a negative net (loss) of $20,000. The major unknown in the projection is revenue. While Ketner has been doing an amazing job incorporating local foods into the program while simultaneously cutting costs, making a profit, and meeting nutrition guidelines, there are additional mandates that will put pressure on her in FY 15. 

The new United States Department of Agriculture guidelines for the 2014-15 school year are even more restrictive than in the past. Effective July 1, 2014 National School Lunch Program (NSLP) members will need to implement new breakfast guidelines, whole grain requirements, align with sodium targets and restrictions, and schools will have to comply with what is being coined the “competitive food rule.” This “rule” means that food that is not part of a reimbursable meal sold during the school day must be either a whole grain rich product, or the first ingredient must be a fruit, vegetable, dairy product, or protein, or a combination of food that contains at least ¼ cup fruit/and or vegetable. In addition, these “competitive foods” must meet a host of other very precise nutrition limits. “Most of the vending machines don’t come anywhere near these requirements,” Ketner said, “even though we have pretty healthy options here.” 

In addition, professional standards that establish mandatory training, education, and certification of all school nutrition directors will be required by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This Act also requires tracking and documentation of compliance, subject to state and federal review. As a result, there will be an increase in payroll to cover the additional hours spent in classes and funding will be needed to cover the cost of classes which usually run $40-$75 per person. 

How will South Burlington respond to the new guidelines? 

Ketner explained there are several options available. One is to comply completely with the new requirements which she anticipates would result in accruing a deficit of $100,000 in FY2015. Another option would be pulling out of the NSLP altogether and creating their own program. The pros of this avenue are numerous. It would mean a decrease in labor costs, the program would no longer be accountable to the USDA, SBSD would have complete control over their nutritional program, there wouldn’t be a loss of jobs, and it could result in a potential increase in sales. The major con is that the district would lose state and federal reimbursement for free and reduced lunches. Although South Burlington has a  small percentage of students that are eligible for free and reduced lunch (18 percent), this loss of reimbursement should be noted. 

Ketner said the new guidelines were put in place as a benchmark for schools in areas of the country that don’t have as much access to fresh, local produce as the northeast. “I think these guidelines will move us backward since we can’t force children to eat something they’re not familiar with,” Ketner explained.“There are ways to offset the deficit that would result from implementing the new guidelines, but they aren’t positive, like staff reductions.” 

Ketner has been doing research on schools with similar free and reduced lunch participation percentages that have opted out of the National School Lunch Program to see how they are fairing. She hasn’t found any in Vermont, but has had conversations with two schools in upstate New York.  

Superintendent David Young agreed that no matter what option they decide to pursue, it’s important to be informed and not go it alone. The district has until August 2014 to make a decision on how they’d like to proceed,  so the item was placed on the board’s list of future agenda items for later discussion.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent