Monticello may leave school lunch program
MONTICELLO — Imagine serving lunch and having nobody eat it.
That's what has the Monticello school district pondering a drop from the National School Lunch Program, at least for the high school cafeteria. School officials estimate it could net them $55,000 more annually than trying to meet new mandates going into effect on snack and a la carte items.
Superintendent Vic Zimmerman said the new federal rules could devastate current high school lunches, which generate about $180,000 per year in a la carte sales. The mandate is for healthier choices and smaller portions, but Aramark Food Services director Kari Perkins said it doesn't help anyone if students won't eat it.
"This (national school lunch guidelines) is a good plan, but at the end of the day kids aren't eating it," Perkins said. "I know the food is better for the kids — I get it — but the taste is going out the door."
Monticello has already implemented tactics to stem red ink that flowed to the tune of $100,000 last year in its food service budget, the majority of which entered the books because of new federal rules. The hiring of food management firm Aramark last summer is expected to cut into that deficit but district officials are concerned it could be negated by the new rules, especially at a high school that relies heavily on a la carte sales.
Perkins estimated 95 percent of Aramark's a la carte items will no longer meet national regulations this fall.
Zimmerman suggests the school board consider taking Monticello High out of the National School Lunch Program. That way, the cafeteria would no longer be bound by the federal nutrition guidelines, which the superintendent hopes would keep sales close to the current level.
It would result in $35,000 less in federal reimbursements, but the hope is that would be more than offset by keeping sales up.
Perkins said Aramark already manages eight high schools that have made similar decisions.
But will the district still strive to serve healthy meals? That's the question of school board member Chris Carr.
"Are we going to be looking at ways that we can be creative and still be healthy, but healthy in things kids would eat?" Carr said.
Zimmerman responded: "It's not like we're throwing out all the healthy stuff. There will still be salads, still be wraps, still be opportunities."
The main reason Monticello can consider the move is because of its low percentage of free and reduced lunch recipients (currently 12 percent). That means it relies less on federal reimbursements than most school districts.
Zimmerman said the district may need to charge more per item if it leaves the federal program, but hopes larger portions for each item will mean similar overall meal prices for high school students.
Board members will continue to discuss the possibility in March.