By Colin Hogan
Changes in the types of foods school districts are required to serve their students left the Fulton City School District’s food services in the red last year, district officials say.
During the 2013-14 school year, FCSD’s student breakfast and lunch programs ended up operating on a $110,000 deficit. District officials say this is largely because changes in state and federal guidelines that mandate what types of food are served, and how big the portions are, caused more students to bring in their own lunches, rather than opt for what the school was serving.
FCSD Food Services Director Terry Warwick said those changes, which were mostly implemented during the 2012-13 school year, included keeping meals to a certain number of calories, lowering sodium levels, making sure whole grains are the primary ingredient in grain-based foods served, and requiring students to take at least one portion of fruits or vegetables with breakfast.
“Basically, when the portion sizes were cut and certain things became mandatory, that’s when thing started going downhill.” Warwick said. “It was like students everywhere just boycotted it.”
Patty Barbar, the director of food services in the Phoenix Central School District and president of the Oswego County School Nutrition Association, said the effect the new standards have had on school food service programs is endemic, not just in Oswego County or New York state, but the entire nation.
“If you look at school districts nationwide, everyone is struggling,” Barbar said.
Reports by the federal government show this to be true. An audit by the the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released earlier this year shows that about 1.2 million students across the nation stopped buying school lunches after the standards were implemented in 2012-13. Prior to that, participation in school lunch programs had increased steadily for almost a decade, the report shows.
Barbar calls the drop in participation an “unintended consequence” of what was otherwise a well-intentioned policy change.
“The law, in theory, was a great idea,” Barbar said, “but the unintended consequence has been that food services all over the U.S. are losing money.”
And it’s not just the result of lower participation. Barbar said once the new standards were enacted, the prices of many of the required products soared.
“When the guidelines came down, and everyone in the country had to buy these things, prices skyrocketed,” Barbar said. “Even by combining forces (with other food service programs), and trying to gain better buying power, we still can’t save nearly as much as we thought we could.”
Both Warwick and Barbar say their districts had been serving foods that mostly aligned with the new standards long before the policy changed.
While a school district’s food service programs typically run on a combination of their own revenues and state and federal funds, when they fall into the red, the district has to cover the gap with local tax dollars.
“The school districts only help fund us when we’re in the red, and districts, as you know, don’t have extra money to spare,” Barbar said. “So we need to be able to support ourselves and, up until about two years ago, we were doing awesome.”
The situation has left food service directors like Barbar and Warwick with a difficult choice:
“We’re put in this situation where we have to cut costs — and I can’t cut the quality of food, that’s not an option —so we end up having to cut staff, which really hurts our customer service,” Barbar said.
This past year, regulators have lighted the standards a bit, allowing districts to serve portions that are a little bit larger than they had been the year before. In Fulton, that has helped bring back some participation in the school lunch program, but Warwick said the numbers still don’t compare to years prior to 2012.
“This year it’s been better. We’re not losing a ton of meals, but we’re not really gaining a ton either,” she said.