Thursday, 08 October 2020 13:15

Food For Thought

By Megin Potter | Education
Photo provided. Photo provided.

Like so many others this year, school cafeterias are doing things differently. Providing free lunches has been one of them.

Since March, in a move meant to ease the financial toll the pandemic is having on families, the US Department of Agriculture has been reimbursing school cafeterias for the meals they serve through their National Lunch Program. Then, in August, it was decided that free lunches would be made available to all students until December. In Schuylerville, there are approximately 1500 students enrolled. 

On October 1, legislation authorized the USDA to extend National School Lunch Program waivers through Sept. 30, 2021. The costs of these free lunches, however, are already rolling in.

“School food services are struggling all over country. We were operating on a shoestring budget already, so we rely on the reimbursement of meals and on a la cart sales - and these sales are way down,” said Sarah Keen, Schuylerville’s Food Services Manager for six years. 

The price tag of providing free lunches for so many kids are substantial. As they stand now, the Federal and State reimbursements are not going to be enough to balance the school food budget. These reimbursements are $1.99/breakfast and $3.57/lunch. 

“That’s the flat rate, regardless of what we put in it,” said Keen. 

It also doesn’t factor in that fewer students are choosing school meals.

“We’re desperate for kids to come back in and get school meals,” said Keen.

In September, Schuylerville’s food services revenue was down $20,000 in a la cart, and down $20,000 in meal sales. 

So why aren’t kids getting school food? People are choosing to bring their lunch, and many students just aren’t hungry at lunch time now because schedules have some eating as early as 10:15 a.m. It also doesn’t account for the additional safety precautions that have been put in place to meet health guidelines. 

These are mainly in the form of additional staff time, lots of packaging and trash. 

Pre-plated and packaged items have replaced traditional options for meals served both on-campus and off, devastating greening initiatives that had previously been in place.

“It’s just a juggling act to make it work,” said Keen.

Choosing to create a more closed system with farm-to-school has many benefits. It was announced this week that Schuylerville will be the recipient of the Farm-to-School Project Grant administered through Cornell Cooperative Extension. 

A participant in farm-to-school projects for more than a decade, Schuylerville spends 30 percent of their district food budget on NY products. They partner with seven NYS farms, including neighbors Kings Dairy, Saratoga Apple, Thomas Poultry, and Old Saratoga Maple. They’ve received food donations from Old Saratoga Mercantile and Irving Tissue, among others. The grant will help Pitney Meadows Farm in Saratoga build a new greenhouse while also awarding $2,000 to the school for new kitchen equipment. 

“What I’ve heard most about the program now is the sense of normalcy that kids feel – they can still have that Stewart’s chocolate milk and the pizza that they’re used to,” said Keen.

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