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Higher prices impact schools

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Those in food services trying to balance budgets

SIKESTON -- Those involved in food services at local school districts are sharpening their math skills to balance cafeteria budgets as a new school year begins amidst higher prices.

"Everything has gone up," said Debbie Throop, food director of Scott County R-IV, which contracts its food services through Chartwells. "But we're still giving the kids their portion of the food because they need their nutrition -- we just try to go with a cheaper dealer."

That's a problem facing most schools, and while some meal prices have risen to alleviate the costs, officials are taking other steps to save money.

Sikeston R-6 has a contract through Chartwells, too. Hugh McGowan, the food service director, said the company has a slight advantage in that it can negotiate on prices through its national purchasing agreement.

"But otherwise we are looking to really make sure that every portion we serve is the correct portion,' said McGowan. "I've been working with my staff a lot on absolute portion control."

For instance, when chili is served, the ladle needs to be shook off and made level, or that person may get a larger portion. Recipes made for 100 need to serve 100 -- not 96, said McGowan.

"We're going to make sure that we are compliant with our recipes all the time," he said. "We're just trying to monitor everything and really make sure we waste nothing."

Steve Strup, regional director of operations in the area for Opaa Food Management, which services New Madrid County R-I, Scott City, Charleston and East Prairie school districts, said efficiency is being pushed.

"Last week, we had a meeting for all the directors and kitchen managers," he said. "One of the handouts passed out was on what's fresh and what's in season."

For instance, it may be a better time to use oranges than apples during a specific season, said Strup. The company also looks to buy Missouri produce. "Hopefully they will be a little bit cheaper than the ones they have to ship from Washington or wherever," he said.

Veronica Mills, head cook at Scott County Central -- which does not contract its food services -- said she hasn't begun to look at prices much yet, but knows she will be watching them more closely this year.

"One of the main things I'm going to do is utilize more of my commodities," she said.

Mills also said she also plans to buy local as much as possible -- because of the freshness, as well as potentially lower prices. "And with some of the companies we are getting charged a fuel surcharge," she said. "It's not a lot, but it adds up over the course of the year."

McGowan agreed those small costs do add up. For instance, about 3,000 units of milk are used daily in the Sikeston R-6 School District. "So just a 2 cent increase is $11,000 a year that we don't recover," he said.

Although Chartwells has raised prices some to alleviate that burden, other companies, such as Opaa, aren't as fortunate.

"We're on a contract with (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) and we can't change the prices that we charge the school," Strup said. "So most of the affect is probably going to be showing up on our bottom line."

He said milk and bread prices -- both of which "have gone up considerably" -- will likely have the largest impact.

While those involved in making food decisions at the school said they will be shopping a bit more frugally and comparing prices, they insisted the quality of food -- as well as the nutritional value students receive from each portion -- will not be altered.

"We can't do a lot of changing because of the nutritional values we have to follow," said Strup. McGowan agreed. "We're still going to continue to serve quality food and satisfy the kids -- we want them to eat," he said. "It will still be the same nutritious meal that they like to eat, we're just going to monitor how we handle it."

And they'll get creative. For instance, apples are an expensive item right now, said McGowan and Throop. "We're having to substitute juice for fresh apples," said Throop. Like Strup, other schools said they'll pay more attention to produce that's in season.

And although those in charge don't want to cut out some foods all together, it may be necessary. "If we can't afford it, we're not going to eat it," said McGowan.