Schools losing on lunch

Board considers hiring outside firm

By Calvin Hennick
Globe Correspondent / May 17, 2009
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Walk into any school cafeteria in the country, and you'll likely see students turning up their noses at mystery meat or unsavory tuna casseroles. But in Newton, those skipped meals are affecting the bottom line.

Low student participation in the school district's lunch program is one reason behind a ballooning food-services budget deficit, say School Committee members. The schools expect to lose $905,000 on food service next school year, up from $416,000 in 2006.

Those numbers correspond with a drop-off in the numbers of students eating lunch at school.

Participation in the lunch program ranges from 25 percent at the city's high schools to 60 percent at the Lincoln-Eliot Elementary School.

The number of middle-school lunches served is down 8 percent from last year, and high-school lunches are down 15 percent.

"I don't eat the lunch on any kind of regular basis," said Ben Miller, a junior at Newton North High School who sits on the School Committee as a student representative. He said students skip school lunch because the lines are long and better food is available outside the school.

Miller said the schools should survey students to see what they want, and should cast a critical eye at their menu items and food quality.

"People can't be finding chunks of meat in the veggie burgers," Miller said. "Twice I've seen that happen. That can't be happening. That is not a sustainable model."

School Committee member Reenie Murphy said the schools had been making food according to the district's wellness policies without fully considering whether it would still be attractive to students, and called the result "not that appealing."

Menu changes alone won't close the budget gap, though, said School Committee chairman Marc Laredo.

The committee is expected to vote May 26 whether to accept a recommendation to ask the superintendent to look into privatizing the schools' food service program.

"You get economies of scale," said Laredo, explaining the benefits of contracting the program out to an outside company.

"You get people whose business is running food services. Colleges do it regularly, as do other school systems."

The May 26 vote wouldn't have any immediate consequences, as a change couldn't be implemented until the 2010-2011 school year.

However, the uncertainty has the school system's roughly 90 food-service employees worried for their jobs.

"It's up in the air," said Susan Cecchinelli, who works in the kitchen at the F.A. Day Middle School. "You don't know whether you should go look for another job."

"We care about the employees and know how dedicated they are," said Murphy, chair of the committee's panel on food service. "We're not looking to get rid of them."

Murphy said shifting to an outside contractor wouldn't necessarily mean that the employees would all lose their jobs, adding that it was too early to tell what effect, if any, the move would have.

Laredo also said he didn't know whether the employees would lose their jobs if the lunch program was contracted out.

"These are good people who do good work," Laredo said. "We have an obligation to look at all our operations, including food service, and make sure we're doing them in a financially prudent manner. And sometimes that means making tough choices."

The subcommittee cited high absenteeism among food-service workers as a reason the system loses money. On an average day, 10 percent of workers are absent, costing the system more than $100,000 a year, it said.

The subcommittee also recommended creating kitchen and cafeteria space at the city's elementary schools, although Laredo said those changes would only occur as components of major school rebuilding efforts.