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Ringing it up: Strained finances pose a hurdle to healthier school lunches

Few restaurants could afford to lose $1 on every meal they serve, but in Haywood County school cafeterias, that’s the reality faced every day.

It costs $3.75 to fix a lunch, including the food and labor. But, the federal government pays just $2.79 for students receiving free or reduced lunches — the sector that makes up the majority of kids going through the lunch line.

The loss of $1 per lunch adds up fast considering there are 5,300 lunches being served in Haywood County schools every day. That’s a loss of nearly $100,000 a month.

The plight is universally shared by every school cafeteria.

“You have to buy your food, your equipment, pay your employees and their benefits — you tell me what restaurant could do that at $2.79,” said Sherry Held, the nutrition director of Macon County Schools.

To plug the hole, schools peddle a la carte items — chips, cookies, ice cream, Gatorade and the like. In all, the sale of snacks generates a little more than $1 million a year in Haywood County to cover the losses on the lunch side.

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Granted, the chips are the baked variety only and the cookies and ice cream are low-fat. But, they still aren’t healthy per se.

“I would love not to even put those things out there, but we have to offer them to make up that difference,” said Allison Francis, the nutrition director for Haywood County Schools.

In Swain County, a la carte snacks bring in $150,000 a year, money the school lunch program simply can’t afford to do without.

“They are forced to sell items that students will buy in order to generate money,” said Lynn Harvey, the director of child nutrition for the state of North Carolina.

Absent adequate funding from the federal or state government, the burden to supplement school lunches would fall to local school systems. But they, too, don’t have the dollars to spare.

“Most local boards of education would prefer to put their education dollars in the classroom,” Harvey said. “We need to help our decision makers recognize that adequate meals at school is a tremendous part of academic success.”

There is one school district in the state that has put its money where their students’ mouths are. Asheville City Schools subsidizes the school lunch program so elementary school cafeterias don’t have to sell snacks. Water, 100-percent fruit juice and animal crackers are the only supplemental items found in Asheville City elementary schools.

“The school system was willing to kick in funding to make that happen,” said Beth Palien, the nutrition director for Asheville City Schools. “We want to do what is in the best interest of the child.”

She estimates they are giving up at least $75,000 a year.

That’s something that’s simply not possible for most school districts, despite their hearts being in it.

“I would love to see the meals be part of public education like text books and transportation and not have to sell that other stuff,” Francis said.

Francis is grateful that in Haywood County, the local school system covers indirect costs such as electricity, which certainly helps.

Still, Haywood County is losing about $200,000 dollars a year. Right now, the balance is coming from savings, squirreled away in better times. That fund has been depleted to just $600,000 though and clearly won’t last forever.


Options on the table

Cost constraints are the primary hurdle faced by school cafeterias in serving healthier, better quality food.

Cafeteria workers wish they could serve apples instead of apple juice, baked potatoes instead of fries or even fresh green beans instead of canned. Francis recalled one school principal who asked why they couldn’t buy raw chicken breasts to grill instead of serving frozen chicken nuggets.

It costs 16 cents for four ounces of juice, compared to 30 cents for a whole apple, for example.

“Unfortunately a lot of healthier made-from-scratch items cost more. It takes more time to prepare so you have to have more labor,” Francis said.

That’s a luxury Francis doesn’t have. The workforce at the 16 school cafeterias in Haywood County has been cut from 120 to 107 in two years. Francis luckily was able to make the cuts through attrition rather than lay-offs.

Haywood cafeteria workers have seen a cut in their pay in an effort to make ends meet. They used to spend teacher workdays cleaning and repairing kitchen equipment. But this year, they will stay home on teacher workdays and lose nine days of pay as a result.


Baked, not fried

Another hurdle to healthier food is the right kitchen equipment — which, in the end, also comes down to money.

At Jonathan Valley Elementary in Haywood County, a fryer still claims coveted floor space in the kitchen, but it hasn’t been used in three years — at least not as a fryer. Until someone hauls it away, it’s been pressed into service as a counter for hot pots and pans.

Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties have phased out fryers almost entirely during the past few years.

“We have no fryers in our school cafeterias at all,” said Diane Shuler, the nutrition director in Swain County. “They are baked, steamed, broiled, boiled.”

It wasn’t cheap, however. Cafeterias had to replace their fryers with giant industrial ovens, lined with enough racks to warm hundreds of corn dogs and potato wedges at a time.

“A new oven is $15,000 to $16,000 dollars,” Francis said.

Discontinuing fryers also means more prep work at a time they are trying to cut back on labor.

“We are feeding such a larger volume of students in such a short period of time, to bake enough fries you have to start a lot earlier,” Shuler said.

In Haywood County, Francis budgets a measly $60,000 a year for equipment. Francis guards the money with her life for the inevitable equipment repair or breakdown.

The dishwashers in the schools date to the 1970s, but it would cost $35,000 a piece to replace them — hardly in the realm of possibility until they absolutely won’t function, she said.

“We joke that we use duct tape to hold everything together. We patch it up as long as we can,” Francis said.


Dollars and cents

Half or more of the student body at most schools in WNC qualify for free or reduced lunch. In Macon County, 60 percent of the student body is in the program. Here’s how it works:

•  For students on free lunch, the federal government reimburses the school for $2.79 a lunch. The student pays nothing.

• For those on reduced lunch, the government reimburses  $2.39. The student pays just 40 cents.

• For students who pay out-of-pocket, most school districts charge $2 for at the elementary level and $2.25 at middle and high school. The government kicks in 28 cents for out-of-pocket students.

While there’s little the school system can do about the reimbursement rate from the feds for free and reduced lunch students, it begs the question: why not, at least for out-of-pocket students, charge a price commiserate with the true cost of the lunch?

Out-of-pocket students account for just 10 and 20 percent of the total lunches served in area schools, but charging more for their plates couldn’t hurt. Or could it?

“We would be out pricing ourselves. Parents can’t afford to pay that much,” Francis said.

Raising the cost for out-of-pocket kids would be akin to shooting themselves in the foot, Francis said.

School cafeterias benefit from an economy of scale. It’s better to have those out-of-pocket students buying lunch at the current price than not at all, since the fixed costs of labor and overhead are the biggest expense behind that lunch — not the cost of the food itself. Francis estimates out of the $3.75 she has in every lunch tray, only $1 of that was actually spent on food.

“The more people that participate the better off we are,” Francis said.

But like it or not, schools will be forced by federal pricing mandates, starting next year, to raise the cost of lunch for out-of-pocket students by 10 cents a year during the next several years until it more closely matches its reimbursement level.

Francis had always wanted to go back to school on the side to get her master’s in nutrition. But, now, she is reconsidering which degree she really needs the most.

“The longer I have been in this job, I realize it takes an MBA,” Francis said.


Lunch programs by county


• Total annual budget: $4.86 million

• Percent of budget spent on food: 34 percent

• Amount made selling snacks: $1 million

• Federal reimbursements: $2.3 million

• Self-pay lunches: $900,000

• Average number of lunches served a day: 5,365

• Percent that get lunch: 80 percent in elementary, 79 percent in middle, 65 percent in high


• Total annual budget: $2.5 million

• Percent of budget spent on food: 46 percent

• Amount made selling snacks: $400,000

• Federal reimbursements: $1.575 million

• Self-pay lunches: $450,000

• Average number of lunches served a day: 3,150

• Percent that get lunch: 77 percent in elementary, 66 to 71 percent in middle and high


• Total annual budget: $1.129 million

• Percent of budget spent on food: 35 percent

• Amount made selling snacks: $126,500

• Federal reimbursements: $642,000

• Self-pay lunches: $178,000

• Average number of lunches served a day: 1,443

• Percent that get lunch: 83 percent in elementary, 77 percent in middle, 66 percent in high

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