By: James Figy
February 1, 2018
A slice of pizza, a mound of fruit, one of those little milk cartons — school lunches might not seem too complex. But for local school districts, lunch programs create a challenge.
Steele County schools must provide nutritious meals that meet federal standards while also being mindful of the cost to their taxpayers. Owatonna Public Schools chooses to handle food service on its own, while the Medford and Blooming Prairie school districts choose to hire an outside company to take care of it.
The goal is to create delicious meals for all students, according to Amanda Heilman, director of finance and operations for Owatonna Public Schools. To do so, it employs 25 full-time and 24 part-time employees who work in the kitchens, the offices or as couriers.
Both Medford and Blooming Prairie schools contract with Minnetonka-based catering and food services company Taher.
Medford has 905 students and budgeted $534,100 for lunch for the 2017-2018 school year, which equals about $590 per student. Blooming Prairie has 728 students and budgeted $435,654, which equals about $598 per student. Owatonna has about 5,000 students and budgeted $3,015,575, which equals about $600 per student. But the numbers alone don’t give a full picture of what the school districts must provide.
“School lunch programs are expected to be self-supporting and have a completely separate fund than the district general fund,” Heilman said. “Many people don’t realize that we are expected to cover all expenses, including items like lunchroom supervision and ‘chargebacks’ for utilities and custodial services.”
Other issues that affect cost are stricter USDA standards for school lunch programs, as well as the decision to buy from local produce growers and suppliers.
Rising to meet a high standard
In December 2010, then-President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law. The bill’s goal was to promote healthy eating. The formal rule came two years later, with guidance from first lady Michelle Obama and then-Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“This rule requires most schools to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and low-fat fluid milk in school meals; reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat and trans fat in meals; and meet the nutrition needs of school children within their calorie requirements,” state the guidelines in the Federal Register. “These improvements to the school meal programs, largely based on recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, are expected to enhance the diet and health of school children, and help mitigate the childhood obesity trend.”
While the policy set a high mark, it hasn’t seemed to hit it consistently. In a 2014 report from the USDA, most food service managers said they had experienced difficulty in maintaining expenses and getting students to accept menus since the changes took effect. More than 60 percent reported a rise in wasted cooked and raw vegetables, and almost 50 percent reported a rise in wasted fruit and bread or grain items.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue took measures earlier this year to reduce financial burdens. His memo from the USDA loosened standards on whole grains, salt and milk.
However, Heilman said that Owatonna schools did not see a large impact from the regulations. The school district considers each product’s quality, cost and the likelihood students will accept it — in addition to meeting USDA standards — before approving it for use in a new menu.
“We continue to successfully meet all required nutrition standards while maintaining our budget,” Heilman said. “Our district began making changes toward these nutrition standards before we were required to, so it wasn’t as big of a change as it might have been for other districts.”
Going to the source
All schools are serving more fruits and vegetables, but choosing to hire out food services rather than run them in-house can cause the district to lose some control over the source.
According to Taher, the company’s school lunch service provides an abundance of options for students, using fresh, healthy products. “We’ll go above and beyond your school board’s requirements by taking the lead on progressive nutritional guidelines, implementing forward-thinking environmental practices, and, of course, easing the strain on your district’s overworked budget,” the company’s website says.
However, it is not clear how much is sourced from local suppliers and growers. Blooming Prairie Superintendent Barry Olson said the district has no control over those issues. And the definition of local produce can sometimes be vague, making it unclear how far food has traveled.
On the other hand, Owatonna schools receive most foods from their primary supplier, Upper Lakes Foods in Cloquet, and their produce comes from Bergin Fruit & Nut in St. Paul, according to Heilman.
“Both of these distributors will carry various Minnesota-grown products throughout the year. We are able to order directly from a local supplier if we go through the appropriate channels,” she said, adding that the district defines “local” as coming from within 100 miles.
This allows Owatonna schools to pump money back into the area’s economy, even if the average price per student is slightly higher. Heilman said the school district spent $50,000 on local products in the 2016-2017 school year.
“We get a variety of produce from southern and central Minnesota in the fall, including watermelon, kohlrabi, corn on the cob, cantaloupe, zucchini, among others. Most of these items are purchased through our prime vendor and produce supplier,” she said. “We purchase Bushel Boy tomatoes from Owatonna throughout the entire year. Previously, we’ve purchased apples from Johnson’s Oakside Orchard in Ellendale.”
It’s a balancing act for school administrators who must decide how much control is worth the cost to serve up a healthy lunch every day, but local school districts work hard to ensure children go home each day with a full stomach.
James Figy is a writer based in Mankato. A native Hoosier, he has reported consumer and business news for magazines and newspapers in Minnesota and Indiana.