School district estimates $44,000 loss this year in food service program
The Upper Perkiomen School District's food service program is finding it hard to combat the allure of highly processed and fast foods, all while it must adhere to strict federal nutrition guidelines.
According to Upper Perkiomen Food Services Director Valerie Nartowicz, the program, which operates independently from the district through an enterprise fund, is looking at a significant loss for 2013-14, estimated to reach around $44,000.
And if it can't find ways to make up for the loss, it may have to be subsidized by the district.
The program sustained a $31,000 loss in 2011-2012 but had a $19,000 surplus for 2012-2013, said overseer, Assistant Business Administrator Stephanie Arnold at Thursday's school board informational meeting. Last year food service staff was restructured and there were changes to inventory costs, both which benefited the program.
This year Upper Perk entered into an agreement to oversee the Western Montgomery Career and Technical Center's restaurant, which also helped offset costs, Arnold said.
District students, however, are choosing other options over cafeteria food and participation is suffering. Nartowicz said participation has gone from 62 to 49 percent as a whole this year, resulting in the loss.
The program has been losing, in part, thanks to government guidelines that are increasingly difficult to follow, making portion sizes smaller and food less appealing, officials said.
Two years ago, with new requirements to utilize whole grains, the program had to reduce hoagie sizes at the high school level from 10 inches to 4 inches because of the cost of whole grain rolls, resulting in a student boycott.
New requirements, scheduled to begin this June, are also slated to further reduce sodium allowed in cafeteria foods, reportedly to miniscule amounts, and require all whole grains be used, making items like soft pretzels and cookies less flavorful or impossible to offer, officials said.
While the district's food is significantly better for students, and a parent lauded Nartowicz's creative efforts to make it more attractive, it is losing out to better-tasting options, many of which are highly processed. Nartowicz said maybe one in four students she surveys is eating as nutritiously as the cafeteria provides.
When students buy from the district, parents also have the ability to view what their children are purchasing through the swipe card payment system the district uses.
Arnold and Nartowicz said the district is looking to expand its breakfast program, which was down 10 percent this year but has the ability to provide enough revenue to help the program come out of the negative. Nartowicz said food service is also trying to analyze purchases more in order to pick foods that kids like.
"The challenge, moving forward, is looking at covering costs in our prices. We would like to keep costs curtailed and not have to raise lunch prices," Arnold said.
Current lunch prices are $2.50 at the elementary level, $2.75 or $3 at the middle school level and vary from $3-$3.50 at Upper Perkiomen High School, depending on meal choices.
Business Administrator Sandy Kassel said the food services program has been fortunate to have a previous balance, which could sustain it for another two years of running at a deficit before being depleted.
In other news the school board agreed to a revised calendar for this year, which went out in letter format Friday for students and through the ConnectEd notification system Thursday night. Currently, the last student day will be June 13. April 16, the latest change to the calendar, was removed as a spring break vacation day to make up for the district's sixth snow day last month.
Substitute Superintendent Dr. Fran Leskowicz said if the district would need an additional snow day, it would be made up on April 21, which was scheduled off for spring break.
The board later agreed to move forward with a draft of the 2014-15 school calendar, with an Aug. 27 student start date and a June 11 last student day.
The new accountability committee's chair, Raeann Hofkin, said the committee would try to activate a board accountability hotline this week. As part of the hotline, the board would be able to listen to the public's concerns, which could be left anonymously, and community members could ask to be contacted by a member of the board.
The committee also agreed to start leaving meeting evaluation sheets for the public, board members and staff at upcoming meetings.
Budget meetings, open to the public, were announced beginning March 4 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Education Center. Meetings, which will focus on specific topics like staffing, transportation and revenue, are also scheduled for March 18, April 1, April 22, May 6 and May 27. The budget meeting schedule is posted online at upsd.org under the school board tab.