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Feeding our children/ Money influences nutrition in schools
AREA — The most important thing to remember about school food is that it's only partly about food.
The focus is feeding students, but the budgeting, regulation and paperwork involved on the other side of the lunch line create a complicated system in which that food is produced.
School nutrition administrators walk a fine line – how do you feed kids healthy food and maintain a self-sufficient budget?
It's figuring out how to serve healthy food that meets federal standards and receives reimbursements, but is still appealing to students who might be more interested in a slice of pizza than a chickpea salad.
Balanced meals, budgets
The small size of a school lunch is out of proportion with the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes to produce it – making sure the meals meet nutrition requirements, that they don't cost too much and are attractive enough for students and staff to pay for them.
It also means recording what ingredients went into the meal and making sure it meets federal requirements so the school can receive reimbursement.
For districts with high percentages of students eligible for free/reduced lunches, budgeting and focusing on health may be a little easier.
Free/reduced is often used as a proxy for poverty – children from families at or below 130 percent of the poverty level – $29,965 per year for a family of four – are eligible for free lunch, according to USDA.
More than 60 percent of students in RSU 10 and SAD 17 are free/reduced eligible.
In some schools, the number is much higher – RSU 10 has three schools, Meroby Elementary, Mountain Valley Middle School and Rumford Elementary, with more than 75 percent free/reduced.
SAD 17 faces a similar situation – only two schools, Hebron Station School and Otisfield Community School, are below 50 percent free/reduced. Three others are about 70 percent, with Oxford Elementary hovering just below 80 percent.
The federal reimbursement per free meal is $2.86. For a reduced price, it's $2.46, and $0.27 for full price meals.
High free/reduced numbers therefore mean substantial state and federal funding – RSU 10 received $1,087,597 last year – $576,863 from free/reduced reimbursement alone. SAD 17 received $1,092,576 – $641,083 from free/reduced.
Jeanne LaPointe, the RSU 10 nutrition director, says the district's wellness policy emphasizes a full, wholesome meal – it can afford to offer more limited, but healthier choices to students.
But reimbursements aren't always enough – the nutrition department received additional funding from the district to meet its budget this year.
High free/reduced numbers also make additional aid like the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program – which provides funding for additional servings of fruit and veggies to eligible elementary schools – available to districts.
Last year, RSU 10 received $98,516 in FFVP funding and SAD 17 received $89,192.
RSU 16, in comparison, received no FFVP funding, despite multiple applications by Betty Hayes, the RSU 16 nutrition director.
Less than 40 percent of RSU 16 students qualify for free/reduced lunch – only one if its schools, Elm Street School in Mechanic Falls, was above 50 percent free/reduced.
Even though the district has a smaller student population – 1,759, compared to 2,814 in RSU 10 and 3,506 in SAD 17 – the state and federal reimbursement it receives is comparatively smaller – only $360,350 last year.
That means RSU 16 has to pay the bills by serving food people will pay for, partially explaining the wide variety of attractive options in the Poland Regional High School café.
Hayes is committed to introducing inventive new options to the menu, but as the Kitchen Manager Alex Sirois said, when there is an emphasis on keeping participation rates – and therefore revenue – high, you need to prepare food people want to eat.
When looked at through that lens, it's easy to see why sticking to tried and true menu options is appealing – and why experimenting with new menus is gutsy.
A perfect world
"In a perfect world you have enough money to pay competitive salaries and higher quality food,” says LaPointe. “It's tough working in the reimbursable meal world."
Despite the beating school food receives, it's important to note that progress has been made in terms of creating a healthier lunch room for students.
Schools no longer serve sugary sodas, and deep fryers are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Salad bars and vegetarian choices are ubiquitous and whole wheat bread is replacing white enriched.
School districts are also making changes individually – RSU 10 is using FFVP funds to buy local produce and, when it can, Buckfield Junior-Senior High sources vegetables from its own garden.
In SAD 17, upgrades are being made in school kitchens to facilitate more scratch cooking and education is being connected health and nutrition with inventive programs like Roberts Farm.
RSU 16 is trying out inventive meal options using USDA commodity food and the district has brought on new kitchen managers in its attempt to find alternatives to pizza and chicken nuggets.
Of course, there is plenty of room for improvement – high schools still serve greasy pizza, cheeseburgers, fries, potato chips, ice cream and cookies – the à la carte options that aren't required to meet any federal guidelines.
À la carte sales help supplement the budget but the emphasis on those sales is different in each district.
The RSU 10 wellness policy makes students' snack options seem practically Spartan compared to SAD 17 and RSU 10.
In RSU 16, the emphasis is on full-price meal participation, but à la carte helps and so does the variety offered in the café.
In SAD 17, à la carte is popular and also important to the bottom line – SAD 17 maintains a self-sufficient school budget, partly through income from those sales – $100,692, last year.
In comparison, RSU 16 took in $45,672 and RSU 10, $30,362.
These totals include catering that the nutrition department also provides.
Investing for change
Change is coming to school food, but slowly – those who expect an overnight switch to scratch cooking, organic produce, free-range chicken, grass-fed beef and homemade bread are probably going to be disappointed.
It's not as if that reality isn't possible or desirable, but as long as nutrition directors are expected to sustain themselves through reimbursements, grant funding and à la carte sales, steady but incremental change is what can be expected.
In the end, it comes down to a discussion as to how much the country, state and community are willing to invest in “school food” to make the changes people want to see.
Editor's Note: This is the fourth of a multi-part series on school food.