Martha’s Vineyard high school cafeteria revenues drop

Martha's Vineyard Regional High School students are not choosing items on the school cafeteria menu that meet state and federal guidelines. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

A leaner, greener menu served up at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) cafeteria has not only reduced calories but it is also reducing revenues, school committee members learned Monday night.

Daily food sales are down by about $31,459 as of June 6, or about 14 percent from last year, MVRHS accounts manager Mark Friedman told the committee.

In addition, the high school no longer receives a reimbursement for meals the cafeteria prepared for the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) and supplied to the Chilmark and West Tisbury schools. In fiscal 2012, the UIRSD reimbursement was approximately $103,000.

Last year, the UIRSD renovated and expanded West Tisbury School’s kitchen in preparation for the launch of an independent food service program at the start of the new school year in September 2012.

With the loss of revenue from student purchases and the UIRSD reimbursement, the two biggest sources of revenue, Mr. Friedman said the projected year-end deficit for the cafeteria revolving fund, out of which expenses are paid, is approximately $60,000.

Chartwells, a national food service management company, has been under contract since 1992 with the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) to run the high school’s cafeteria.

Mr. Friedman explained that the cafeteria is on a revolving fund. The fund includes revenues from food sales and covers expenses for breakfast and lunch programs at the high school.

Although the contractual expenses for Chartwells are also projected to decrease by about 16 percent, Mr. Friedman said the expenses are not going down as quickly as the revenue has.

Taste test

The critical factor in the drop in food sales is a recent change in menu selections. For example, new Federal and State guidelines for school meals require the addition of a variety of vegetables and whole grain enriched bread. They also ban many popular snacks such as French fries and cookies.

“Those changes have not only cost more money, but are now decreasing the participation by kids in the school lunch program,” school business administrator Amy Tierney said.

Mr. Friedman said breakfast meal counts are up by 2 percent and lunch meal counts down by 5 percent this school year. “It’s really in the a la carte area of the budget where we’re seeing a marked decrease in purchases,” he said.

Chartwells District Manager Gail Oliveira, who oversees about 16 school districts including Martha’s Vineyard, provided some details about how changes in the State and Federal regulations have impacted revenues. She attended the meeting with Bernadette “Bernie” Cormie, who replaced former cafeteria manager Leslie Floyd.

Ms. Oliveira said Massachusetts has adopted some of the most strict laws in a la carte sales that she has ever seen.

“Prior to August 1 we could sell a myriad of beverages; after that, in Massachusetts, we could sell plain water, four ounces of juice, and milk,” she said. “That has impacted a la carte sales by $17,000.”

School cafeteria managers and contractors must select items from the “A-list,” which names acceptable vending and snack products that meet the Massachusetts Nutrition Standards for competitive foods and beverages in public schools. The list is compiled by the John Stalker Institute of Food and Nutrition, a partnership of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Framingham State University.

Ms. Oliveira said although the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed i ts ala carte guidelines were too strict and is revising them, Massachusetts does not plan to follow suit.

According to the the Stalkers Institute’s website, snacks must fit certain criteria for calories, fat, protein, salt, and sugar. For example, calories may not exceed 200, and of those, total fat or total sugar may not be more than 35 percent. No artificial sweeteners are allowed. Chocolate milk is off the list because of sugar content. Potato chips must be baked, not fried.

“As a company, we’ve sourced a lot of good products and we’re getting more and more,” Ms. Oliveira said. “We have our marketing team and culinary team working. And when I see the deficit, it’s something that’s hard to swallow, but we’re not going to settle for that next year. We’ve got things to do. The rules aren’t going away.”

Ms. Oliveira said the new rules have also impacted student participation in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, federally assisted meal programs that provide nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches each school day to children whose families meet income eligibility.

“There has been a 9.6-percent reduction in participation across the country, since now every meal a child takes has to include a fruit or vegetable,” Ms. Oliveira said. “Prior to July 1 last year, a school district received reimbursement and a subsidy for just a slice of pizza.”

Now, a student must order a salad, fruit, and milk with the pizza slice to make it a complete meal or it is considered a la carte, and is not eligible for reimbursement. As a result, Ms. Oliveira said many of the high schools in her district are suffering financial losses, unless 70 percent or more of their students are in the National School free and reduced-price lunch program.

Ask the kids

School committee vice chairman Lisa Reagan of Oak Bluffs and members of the high school Wellness Committee recently conducted a survey of 205 students about lunch in the cafeteria. She said the results would be reviewed and discussed with the school committee after the summer.

“One of my concerns is that kids are in the building all day, and we don’t want the food to get extreme so that it’s turning off kids that might eat it,” school committee chairman Colleen McAndrews said. “It would be great if kids got involved in designing the menu.”

Ms. McAndrews said she has heard students complain they don’t like the school’s pizza because there is flax seed in the crust. Ms. Oliveira said Chartwells has received complaints about it from students across the country, and the dough recipe will be changed next September.

“We have to do a better job of communicating and should be meeting more often with youth advisory councils,” Ms. Oliveira said. She agreed with Ms. McAndrews that students should have a say in the menu.

“It’s not that we serve just one item,” Ms. Cormie reminded everyone. “We serve anywhere from 9 to 13 items for them to choose from, as well as a full salad bar, daily.”

Fries preferred

In a follow-up phone conversation with The Times on Tuesday, Mr. Friedman said that over the next few weeks he and Ms. Tierney would review the high school budget’s line items to determine where there might be some savings to help offset the cafeteria fund deficit.

The School Advisory Group has asked to do a healthy snack food pilot program next year, Ms. Tierney told the Times the day after the meeting. “They want to purchase healthy snacks that meet the state guidelines, see what the kids will buy and eat, and maybe bring in more revenue,” Ms. Tierney said. “We don’t want to see them buy a granola bar in place of a lunch meal, but at the same time, if they’re going to just get a snack, we would prefer it to be something healthy.”

“Some kids won’t eat lunch, but will wait until after school and go across the street to buy French fries at the Y or go to Mocha Mott’s,” she added.

Currently the lunch price for students is $2.75 and adults pay $3.75. “We’re going to ask for an increase because we have to make ends meet somehow,” Ms. Tierney said. “If we can’t increase participation, we have to increase the price.”