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Food service devours South Whidbey school budget

Russell Daly feasts on a roast beef sandwich during lunch at Langley Middle School. To his left are Maxwell Dodd and Jadan White. Across the table are Michael Maddux and Brent de Wolf. All sixth-grade students eat lunch together after a brief trial at school-wide lunches much of this school year. Food service may change next year.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Russell Daly feasts on a roast beef sandwich during lunch at Langley Middle School. To his left are Maxwell Dodd and Jadan White. Across the table are Michael Maddux and Brent de Wolf. All sixth-grade students eat lunch together after a brief trial at school-wide lunches much of this school year. Food service may change next year.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

Every slice of pizza or salad students on the free and reduced lunch program eat costs South Whidbey schools.

Last year, the South Whidbey School District spent $218,000 more than its food service revenue on feeding students.

“My concern is $218,000 every year in the hole is a lot of money,” said Jill Engstrom, board member.

Enrollment in free and reduced meals may be an indicator of the tough times faced by South Whidbey families. In 2006, 61 percent of lunches were paid in full by students. In 2012, 57 percent of students received reduced or free meals from the schools.

To an extent, that’s a cost the school district is willing to swallow.

“It’s a misrepresentation to talk about it as a loss, because it’s a service to feed our students,” said Superintendent Jo Moccia.

Rising costs have the district looking for a food service vendor to replace Chartwells. The school food specialists have served South Whidbey schools for years, and its current contract was $269,000. Board members unanimously approved a food service request for proposal at their meeting April 24.

Even six years ago when most students and their families could afford full-cost meals, the district lost almost $194,000 on food service. The one constant from then to now is labor, which continues to rise in cost, district leaders said at the school board meeting.

Each meal costs the school district almost $6, most of which is tied to labor cost, compared to the meal’s cost of about $3. In the 2011-12 school year, $254,451 was spent on food service labor, which accounted for about 82 percent of total food service costs. The total expense of food service approached $528,000, according to school district documents.

“Food service has been a losing proposition for a long time, to be honest,” said Dan Poolman, assistant superintendent. Ben Watanabe / The Record | Jacob Winn grabs his chicken sandwich during lunch at Langley Middle School. The sixth grader said he regularly eats the school-prepared chicken sandwich. Sitting beside him is Ryan Larson, also a sixth grader.

The district’s nutrition committee reported on the quality and frequency of food service use, nutrition, and physical education at the schools. For the past six years, between 30 and 40 percent of students ate school-prepared meals. A couple of students shared their approval of the food. Maverick Christensen, a junior at South Whidbey High School, professed to be a school cafeteria connoisseur. He eats school-made sandwiches almost daily at lunch.

“It’s something I do every day and I see lots of kids do every day,” Christensen said.

One small way the district hopes to change its food service program is by collecting outstanding charges. About $10,000 is owed to South Whidbey schools from the previous school year. Students are allowed to charge meals to their student account if they do not have money to pay for lunch. Left unchecked and unaccountable, the charges accumulated until a large bill was left unpaid.

Elementary and middle school students will be limited to three charges in the future. If they are unable to pay and those charges remain unpaid, students will be given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with milk, or a grilled cheese sandwich and milk. Students at the high school will not receive such leniency, and will not be given any meal if they have three outstanding charges. Charge rules at South Whidbey Academy will follow the elementary, middle and high school configurations.

“We don’t want students to go hungry, but we can’t go on with that kind of charging,” Moccia said.

Despite a positive nutrition committee review of the food service provided by Chartwells, the board moved forward with its request for proposal, even after a company representative prepared several dishes for the district officials and sat in the crowd.

One reason the district will seek a new food service vendor is to better react to changing nutrition guidelines. Federal school food guidelines measure grams of vegetables, fruits, meat, dairy and other parts of the former food pyramid, now a portioned plate, as well as percentages of fat, vitamins and protein.

“Those guidelines changed three times in the last year,” Poolman said.

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