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Walpole students buying fewer lunches

December 27, 2013

As school lunches nationwide have become healthier thanks to new federal standards, students in Walpole and across the nation are buying fewer lunches – but Walpole’s School Nutrition and Lunch Service Director argues that correlation is not necessarily causation, at least in this district.

Students in Walpole have purchased an average of about 1,265 lunches each school day so far this school year, according to statistics provided to 180 by Nutrition Director Maria Hall. That is down from about 1,300 lunches purchased, on average, each day during the same September-November period last school year, and 1,526 lunches sold per day, on average, during the same period in the 2011-2012 school year.

According to Hall, school lunch purchases across the state dropped by 4 percent overall at the same time that the new federal standards took effect just before the 2012-2013 school year. That corresponds with the 15 percent drop in Walpole during that same period.

Across the country, media outlets have reported that students are turning up their noses at the new healthier foods – a part of first lady Michelle Obama’s new initiatives to reduce childhood obesity. With students purchasing fewer lunches and bringing in less revenue, some school districts are actually choosing to opt out of the new nutrition standards, meaning they also must give up lucrative federal subsidies. For some wealthier districts, opting out is worth the cost.

But Hall said that Walpole would lose too much if it left the National School Lunch Program, because federal subsidies make up such a significant chunk of the district’s lunch service revenue – currently 37 percent. The district also receives $70,000 in USDA food allocation each year, and is made eligible for an extensive number of federal grants.

Besides, Hall said she thinks other factors besides the new foods may be causing the reduction in meal purchases.

For one, lunch prices went up by 25 cents during the last school year. Hall says that a general rule of thumb, from state officials’ estimates, is that an increase in the cost of lunch by just five cents can result in a 5 percent reduction in participation lasting up to six months.

That price hike is driving up revenue, even with the fewer sales. School cafeteria sales revenue is increasing steadily, from $227,656.62 in the 2011-2012 school year, to $230,281.91 this school year. Total revenue has increased from $303,940.28 in the 2011-2012 school year, to $318,056.57 this school year.

The revenue increase also reflects money from the profitable breakfast program that Hall implemented in the schools last year.

Hall also pointed to “unforeseen circumstances” in the first few months of this school year – the death of a high school student – that caused a significant drop in attendance (and thus participation in the lunch program) for several days.

Hall said that school meal programs in Massachusetts in particular have had to deal not only with the new federal standards, but also with new state regulations on so-called “competitive” foods – foods that are sold on school grounds during the school day but are separate from school lunches, such as à la carte items, and vending machine products.

Hall said that districts such as Walpole “were faced with implementing a new set of standards without many best practices to reference.” The food industry, meanwhile, did not have time to catch up to the new state regulations, which left a limited selection of products for schools to sell to students that met the new guidelines.

Meanwhile, as with any new government regulation, each school district faced costs in implementation of the new nutrition standards, along with higher costs for the healthier foods.

In the past year, however, most of the issues have been addressed as more foods are available and the federal and state governments have developed guides for implementing the new standards. Hall said she is optimistic that the reduction in lunch purchases will end soon.

Since taking over as new school food service director in 2011, Hall has used her business experience to drive down costs. In 2012, the school district consolidated their food preparation, which sliced more than $100,000 from the district’s expenses.

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