Schools consider costs of lunch programs
BRISTOL — The Mount Abraham Union High School board of directors is faced with a quandary these days: Continuing to subsidize the high school’s in-house lunch program is an expensive prospect, but making changes to the food service program could come at the cost of local control and current employees’ benefits.
Board members don’t know yet if they’ll vote to solicit bids for a new food service provider, or if they’ll simply make some changes within the current system. The only thing that is certain, according to board chair Lanny Smith, is that business as usual isn’t an option anymore.
“We couldn’t continue going the way we’re going,” Smith said. “We’re investigating the whole procedure.”
For schools around the county, swapping school-run food service programs for outside contracted services is increasingly becoming a way for administrators to pinch pennies in a tight economy. But local principals agree that the financial gains don’t come without a cost, and they voice concern about some of the downsides of shutting down school-run programs.
Still, those financial gains aren’t to be dismissed lightly: At Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro, the switch this year from a school-run program to an outside food service provider saved the school $26,000, nearly 70 percent of what the school budgeted last year for its lunch program.
For the current school year, as well as next year, Mount Abe has budgeted just more than $94,000 to subsidize the school lunch program, which also pulls in funding from state and federal sources, as well as revenues from students who pay for the food. Those revenues don’t cover the cost of running the program, though.
The proposed 2010-2011 Mount Abe spending plan was warned in mid-January, and will be up for a vote on Town Meeting Day in the five towns area.
According to an outside food service vendor, switching to an outside contractor could save the school in the neighborhood of $103,000.
“That’s a lot of money,” Smith said, “almost two teaching positions. We want to be responsible with the money.”
MAKING THE SWITCH
Robinson Elementary Principal Daniel Noel knows what that change can mean for schools: Robinson negotiated the switch from its own lunch program to an outside service, which took effect this year. Now, food at Robinson is overseen by the Abbey Food Group of Enosburg Falls.
The Abbey Group is one of two main food service providers in the area; the company has 77 accounts, including the Statehouse cafeteria in Montpelier. The other big provider, Café Services of Londonderry, N.H., supplies services to Mary Hogan Elementary School, Middlebury Union High School and Middlebury Union Middle School.
Robinson pays Abbey roughly $12,000 a year to oversee and administer the food program. That’s down from $38,000 in the 2008-2009 school year, and Noel thinks the savings will be even more next year, when the school’s own food service costs would have certainly continued to rise.
When the school’s administrators decided to make the switch, the change generated a lot of conversation in Starksboro. In fact, Robinson’s spending plan is voted on from the floor at the town’s annual meeting in March, and last spring a resident offered an amendment to increase the school’s budget to “save” the old food services program.
The amendment failed, and Robinson moved ahead with the switch to the Abbey Group.
The biggest boon for the school, Noel said, is definitely financial. But he also said that the switch means administrators can focus on the business of educating and not the business of, for all intents and purposes, running a restaurant within the building.
Outside contractors, he said, remove the need for setting menus, managing personnel and paying food bills.
“It can be an intensive thing,” Noel said.
Steve Flint, the principal at Beeman Elementary School in New Haven, agreed. Flint has been at Beeman for three years, and the Abbey Group took over food services for the school a year or two before Flint took the job.
Flint, like Noel, said that the school no longer has to deal with the “day to day stuff” like invoices for food or finding substitutes if kitchen workers are out sick.
“While that’s not the reason we made that move, it’s definitely a benefit,” Flint said.
The main reason was financial: Now Beeman pays a subsidy of just $7,000 for their entire food service program.
The savings come in part from the Abbey Group’s economy of scale. Because the company is purchasing food for a number of schools rather than just one, it saves money in the long haul.
While administrators and kitchen employees lose some control over setting menus, Flint was happy with the way the Abbey Group has been able to incorporate food from the school’s own garden into their meals, and school traditions like baking a birthday cake to celebrate each months’ birthdays were also preserved.
And for the children at Beeman, Flint thinks the switch was barely recognizable.
“They don’t see it as the Abbey Group,” he said. “They just see it as lunch.”
On the other side of the equation, Abbey Food Group owner David Underhill said that the company simply has more resources than small, individual school programs. He thinks the company brings more resources into schools in almost every program it takes over. Abbey trains cooks, and is well versed in federal regulations, particularly when it comes to buying local produce. Now, the company has employees in the field making connections with Vermont farmers.
“The local school lunch ladies don’t have time to be raiding the gardens of the neighborhood, so to speak,” Underwood said.
The company’s centralized bookkeeping system also cuts down bookkeeping costs by about 80 percent, according to Underwood.
“Quite frankly, with all that’s being put onto the local schools, it’s getting much more difficult to have the local (programs) rise to the challenge of the new, computerized point-of-sale regulations,” Underwood said. “It’s become much more cumbersome for them to manage. That’s what we do.”
And food service operators batted down concerns that their programs are inflexible.
Bill VanZandt, the vice president of operations at Café Services, said that schools can pick and choose what works for them. For instance, Mary Hogan administrators have chosen not to serve red meat at the elementary school, and have asked Café Services to bake from scratch using whole wheat.
WEIGHING PROS AND CONS
Of course, both school administrators and community members have concerns about making a change like this. Noel said that outside contractors often don’t pay their employees as well as individual schools do, and some companies keep costs down by eliminating health insurance plans for employees.
And employees worry that their jobs are at stake when changes are made. At Robinson, the least senior of the food service program’s two employees was laid off last year, and Abbey Group brought in another Starksboro resident with experience with the company to fill that employee’s position.
Meanwhile, at Mount Abe, current cafeteria workers have already voiced their concern, particularly about employee benefits. (Abbey Food Group offers health insurance to full-time employees, but not part-time workers. Most employees in the school lunch program hold part-time positions.)
At a Jan. 19 school board meeting, longtime employees urged board members to explore all of the options, and said they’d be open to negotiating changes to the system that did not include bringing in an outside contractor.
“Do some research,” said Carol Roscoe then, who has worked for Mount Abe since 1984 in the food service. “In all departments, you couldn’t find a more dedicated group of people … We work as a team. We’re willing to negotiate something.”
Now, the board appears willing to do just that: Smith said that the board hasn’t committed to requesting bids from outside contractors, but the community can expect to see changes of some kind in the cafeteria program by the time school starts next fall.
Noel said that principals and school boards looking at making these kinds of changes need to be clear about their values when they move ahead with these kinds of changes.
“You don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘I’m going to keep everything,’” Noel said. “You’re trying to do your best to improve things as you make hard, difficult decisions.”