Nutrition program facing lean budget

By Amanda Dodson -

The Stokes County School Board met last week to review the findings from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction after recent visits to Southeastern Middle, Pine Hall Elementary, and West Stokes. NCDPI’s assessment gave a clear insight to Stokes schools nutrition program.

“They told us we had more commendations than any school they had audited in many, many months. There’s always recommendations and actions you have to correct, but they were complimentary on our child nutrition arenas around the county,” said Superintendent Ronnie Mendenhall.

While the program was cited as being organized, up-to-date, and innovative, it stated expenses exceeded actual revenue in the 2015-16 school year.

“We’re at a point where we have to do things differently to make ends meet,” explained Kristen Bealler, Director of Child Nutrition. “If the school nutrition program ends in a deficit the Stokes County School Board will be liable to cover the deficit per the school nutrition annual agreement.”

In November of 2014, Bealler requested permission to test new serving lines at all three Stokes County Schools’ high school cafeterias in an effort to bring additional funding. The premium product line featured whole muscle chicken products and higher quality pizza and burger products. All of the meals would still meet the National School Lunch Program nutritional guidelines set forth by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. High schools would continue to offer their regular main line menu at the current meal price, but one serving line would become a PEAK meal line. The PEAK meal would still be considered a reimbursable meal, free students would still be free, reduced students would be $.40, and paid students would be $3.20.

In a unanimous decision, the motion was approved by a 4-0 vote.

Bealler said students did enjoy the PEAK meals, however it didn’t generate additional revenue.

“We were hopeful, but in fact it stayed the same. We’ve also seen a very significant decrease in meal participation this year, maybe due to the mandated price increase,” she said.

Bealler suggested ceasing the PEAK meals in the 2016-17 school year or as early as January when students return from the holiday break.

“I’d really hate to stop it in the middle of the year but it’s causing an increase in food costs and we’re not seeing any additional students come eat with us in the cafeteria,” she said.

One revenue option is to continue alternative breakfast programs which include a “grab and go” concept.

North Stokes has seen a 12% increase after implementing a “Second Chance Breakfast”, which translates to an additional 43 breakfasts per day.

“After first period they come in and get breakfast. A lot of students don’t want to eat at 7:30 in the morning,” Bealler said.

Being in the school system for 10 years, School Board Member Pat Messick said it was common practice to see students eat later in the morning.

“It’s so important they have breakfast,” she said. “Are there other items we could serve to generate money?”

Bealler explained they’re considering additional dessert items, but the first ingredient was required to be milk, fruit, or a vegetable.

“We want to get some student feedback. Hopefully soon we’ll put out student and parent surveys which will let us know what they think,” Bealler said.

The NCDPI report suggested developing individual budgets for each school while setting goals for labor and inventory.

“We need to focus on each school being their own individual restaurant so to speak. They can advise a plan with each manager on how to increase participation or ways to cut costs,” Bealler said.

The issue isn’t a quick fix, according to Executive Director of Finance, Lanette Moore.

“It’s nothing new; we’ve just never been to this point. We’re concerned how we’re going to end this school year,” she told the board. “The PEAK meal would have helped but unfortunately it didn’t work out the way we had planned.”

Bealler explained other school systems are dealing with the same issue.

“We asked, ‘How many schools are actually operating in a break even or a small profit?’ and we were told it was very, very few. Unfortunately with whole grains and smart snacks we’re losing our students because of these federal regulations and stipulations we have to follow. Now we’re trying to figure out how we can get them eating with us again.”

Amanda Dodson can be reached at 336-813-2426 or on Twitter at AmandaTDodson.

By Amanda Dodson

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