The $1.5 million operation fails to break even

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Sunset offers breakfast because 25 percent of its students quality for free or reduced meals. Breakfast is also served at Title 1 schools throughout the district. The West Linn-Wilsonville School District is once again re-examining its nutrition services program in an attempt to cut costs and provide healthy meals.

Sodexho Marriott School Services managed the district’s nutrition program until the school district took over operations in 2004.

“The district took over the entire program with the goal to provide more flexibility,” Director of Operations Tim Woodley said.

West Linn-Wilsonville School District’s nutrition services program has seen many changes, both internal and external, since then.

External changes

External changes are primarily driven by the economy, the price of food and regulations set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010. The bill authorizes funding for federal school meal and child nutrition programs for five years and includes $4.5 billion in new funding for these programs over 10 years.

School nutrition programs that comply with meal pattern requirements are eligible to receive an additional 6 cents in meal reimbursement. The meal patterns were released to the district through the Oregon Department of Education in July 2012.

“Our lunch program made significant adjustments to our menus based upon what is healthy for kids to eat,” Woodley said, commenting on districtwide changes in recent years. “This effort has given us an advantage over many other school lunch programs toward implementation of these rule changes. ... On the other hand, it has been a significant effort to create new menus, find new food items and train staff.”

For some school districts, the new regulations were fairly dramatic. However, ODE informed the West Linn-Wilsonville School District was “further ahead on the learning curve than most districts,” Woodley added.

Internal changes

The district’s nutrition services program was also heavily altered by internal changes. In fall 2011, the district eliminated its hot lunch program at primary schools to save money and improve nutrition.

Instead, the district installed a “community lunch” where students could bring a sack lunch from home or purchase a sack lunch from the district and eat in classrooms.

The change, district officials said at the time — amidst budgetary shortfalls — would save the district $200,000 in nutrition staff expenses, thus making room to retain more teachers.

“The logistics of this effort, combined with ODE and USDA regulation proved to be insurmountable,” Woodley said. “Following a special audit from ODE last March, the district transitioned to a traditional hot lunch program served out of each school kitchen, including the two new to primary schools.”

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Patty Dehaze, kitchen lead with nutrition services at Sunset Primary School, serves breakfast. Despite the changes and federal incentives, the school district struggles to not only attract student patrons, but break even financially.

“Our goal is to offer a healthy hot lunch program that is effective and efficient,” Woodley said. “To the extent possible, I believe we are doing just that. But efficient can be a relative term.

“In a perfect world, efficiency would result in a break-even financial picture. Like most school districts with similar demographics, we have never truly been in the break-even position.”

The nutrition services program costs the district about $1.5 million each year. Of the 8,700 students enrolled in the district this year, an average of 2,410 meals are served per day during a two-hour time period.

That number is up by about 800 meals per day from the 2011-2012 school year.

“Revenue is a direct result of participation, we want it to be high,” Woodley said.

Of the 2,410 meals served daily, 482 are free or reduced. The USDA pays the district $2.86 for every free or reduced meal offered at Title 1 schools.

Title 1 schools are defined by having 35 percent of enrollment qualifying for free or reduced meals. Title 1 schools in the district include Boeckman Creek, Boones Ferry and Lowrie primary schools.

The school district is also required to serve breakfast to Title 1 schools. However, Sunset Primary School also serves breakfast because at least 25 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced meals. The breakfast program at Sunset began Dec. 4.

Moving forward

District officials remain somewhat befuddled as to how to streamline costs and break even.

“Food costs I believe are fairly well managed,” Woodley said, noting the district relies on USDA subsidies and purchases food solely through co-ops and purchasing agreements. “I think the low-hanging fruit is probably gone.”

This year, the district developed real-time tracking sheets that track food, labor and overhead costs per school. The sheets are intended to help the district identify trends, maximize efficiency and participation, and provide consistency in menus and delivery methods across the district.

As a result, the district is examining labor costs, which were maintained from the 2011-12 school year.

Labor is probably the best place for trying to conserve, Woodley said.

The full plan of attack — to attract students to nutritional lunches and yet break even — is still yet to be determined.

“We have an excellent nutrition program and it has always come with a cost,” Woodley said.

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