MONTICELLO — Monticello High School's cafeteria may resemble a food court more than a lunch line this fall after the school board voted to pull that building out of the National School Lunch Program.
The move will mean an estimated $42,000 less in federal reimbursement, but should result in a net savings of $60,000 because the school will no longer need to meet expanding federal nutrition guidelines.
Those phased-in rules will start to affect a la carte and snack purchases this fall, both popular options at the high school.
"I think it's worth a shot," Superintendent Vic Zimmerman told board members at this week's meeting. "We'll only be serving the things kids are buying, because we're not required to serve three orange vegetables per week so there will be less food waste."
He envisions up to six a la carte food stations that would serve Mexican fare, pizza, sandwiches and salads, snacks, and a more traditional full-meal offering.
Board member Zach Hillard asked if any remodeling would be needed to convert the cafeteria. Zimmerman said he hoped it could be done with minimal cost.
The district's food service budget lost $100,000 last school year, prompting the hiring of Aramark to manage its five cafeterias. That helped reduce the deficit to an estimated $42,500 this school year, but officials say the Smart Snacks in Schools changes going into effect for 2014-15 would send the deficit rising again.
Prices for food items at Monticello have not been set for this fall, but Zimmerman said they would "be adjusted upward due to increased portions and food offerings."
For now, only the high school will be dropped from the National School Lunch Program, but if the experiment goes well, it could expand to other district schools. Monticello can try the option because of its low percentage of free and reduced lunch recipients (12 percent at the high school), which means it relies less on federal reimbursements than most schools.
Even with the change, Zimmerman is skeptical the food service budget could ever be balanced.
"I wish I could sit here and tell you that we're going to get to zero, going to break even on our service," Zimmerman said, "but we've never broken even on our food service."
He said the average deficit has been $100,000 over the past decade.
Aramark food services director Kari Perkins said about 95 percent of its current a la carte items will no longer meet national school regulations this fall. She also said Aramark is already managing eight high schools that are not part of the National School Lunch Program.