From running a deficit for three years to almost breaking even this year, the Lake Oswego School District food service program is making large strides.
The school board received an update on food service during its Aug. 23 meeting.
The district experienced a setback in the 2007-08 school year when the price of food jumped in relation to spiking gas prices.
By the end of the 2008-09 school year, the food service program was deep in the red. Unable to cover the gap, the district transferred more than $100,000 from its general fund to the food service fund, according to Executive Director of Finance Stuart Ketzler.
In the area of food services, Lake Oswego is at a disadvantage. Unlike most neighboring districts, Lake Oswego has only about 10 percent of its students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, a federal program that reimburses districts and helps offset fixed and variable costs.
In the summer of 2009, the district hired Marcie Christiansen as the new director of food services.
In her first year on the job, Christiansen cut the deficit in half, having to transfer $55,000 from the general fund, according to Ketzler.
And, though the books are not officially closed yet, the 2010-11 year looks even better. Ketzler is estimating a transfer of less than $15,000 from the general fund to the food service budget.
Ketzler is optimistic that the 2011-12 is the year the food service program will break even.
'Marcy's done a tremendous job for us,' said Ketzler.
Christiansen's first move when she was hired was to improve the district's lunch ticketing system. By upgrading to the NUTRIKIDS computer-based system for selling lunches, the district was able to lose three hours a day of staff time at each school. This is because staff was no longer needed to sell lunch tickets.
Another change was to convert the menu to a simplified four-week rotation. By having a consistent menu, the district needs to keep less inventory on hand, said Christiansen.
This year, the district will be saving another $20,000 by eliminating the transport driver position. The driver resigned last summer and Christiansen was able to get direct distribution to each school through a main distributor, thus eliminating the position.
Currently, Christiansen estimated that about 200 meals are served a day at the high schools, which each have about 1,000 students. That doesn't include the a la carte.
Christiansen said she will continue to look at high school participation and wants to get labor costs and participation levels so they support each other
Of course, the government and the school district want to serve healthy meals that kids enjoy. The problem is how to achieve it in a cost-effective manner.
'This is one subject I'm very passionate about,' said School Board Member Bob Barman. He advocated for becoming innovative, listening to parents and educating children about healthy eating. 'We should be part of the solution and not part of the problem.'
Christiansen maintains that the meals the district serves are nutritious and meet or exceed all government regulations.
'A lot of it is public perception,' she said of the misnomer of school lunches being unhealthful. 'We get tagged for obesity in kids. Those things are not really true.'
She said she has 'taken some pretty hard blows along the way' in her position, but Christiansen wants the public to be more aware of the government guidelines and the nutritional value of the school meals.
'I try to give people the information they want,' she said.
A new change for the 2011-12 year, thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, is that drinking water must be offered where meals are served. As a result, water containers with cups will be available at the secondary schools. And since elementary classrooms have water available, the district is requesting that water bottles be added to the student supply list.
Half of the challenge is meeting government nutrition guidelines and still appealing to the discerning tastes of students.
'We have limited ability to appeal to the palate of every kid in our schools,' said Ketzler.
While most kids love French fries and other potato products, and are more likely to buy lunches with those options, they aren't healthy choices and the government limits districts to one cup of starchy vegetables a week. By the way, peas and corn are included in the 'starchy' vegetables list.
One way the district is looking to improve nutrition and reduce sodium is to use more scratch cooking. However, controlling portion size is a challenge when serving scratch-cooked food, said Christiansen.
Some schools in the district have gardens that produce vegetables. However, since the amount of produce is always in question, those veggies cannot be a main source on the school menu. However, the school may pick the produce, wash it and serve it next to the salad bar with a label saying it is from the garden, said Christiansen.
School Board Member Linda Brown said she gets lots of questions from parents about why the district continues to serve chocolate milk.
Christiansen said it is government regulation that schools offer a variety of low-fat milk. She said, unless students are not used to drinking low fat milk, they are not going to like it. So, the flavored milk becomes an option. The district offers both nonfat chocolate and 1 percent white milk.
School lunches are set at $3.50 for junior and high school students and at $3.25 for elementary students. Milk is 60 cents.
Schools that meet all the new proposed rules can be part of the Healthier U.S. Challenge. Schools that qualify receive a one-time reimbursement of $1,200. Christiansen is aiming to make every school a member of the challenge.
For more information about the USDA guidelines, visit www.choosemyplate.gov.