SAD 17 school lunch program big business

PARIS — Food Services Director Martha O'Leary runs a $1.6 million business from the kitchen at the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School. And it costs the taxpayers zip.

Submitted photo

The SAD 17 Food Service Department recently hosted a Harvest Lunch at the Waterford Elementary School to recognize the importance of eating healthy and to celebrate Maine farms in the community. Seated left, from front, are Kelly Laplante and her daughter, Kate-Lynn Laplante, Delia MacDonald, Nolan Hafner, Hayden Farrell and teacher Katie Scott. Seated right, from front, are Florence Ward and her daughter, Lucy Ward, Alexandria Snow, Jessica Cummings, Casey Hafner and Accalia Nest.

The 30 staff members of the Oxford Hills School District food services department — including the director, assistant director and secretary — serve 1,657 lunches, 857 breakfasts and 751 a-la-carte items each day. That's 289,789 lunches, 149,922 breakfasts and 131,415 a-la-carte items each year.

“It's a big business,” said O'Leary, food service director for the Oxford Hills School District.

O'Leary, who has been with the district's lunch program since 2003, began in a small private-school food service with a small budget in 1984. Now she runs a multilevel lunch, breakfast and snack program for some 3,500 students in 10 school buildings with only three kitchens.

“Sixty-six percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced pricing," she said.

“We are seeing more and more students arriving to school hungry,” she told the Oxford Hills School District Board of Directors at their meeting last week. Sadly, she said, sometimes the school meal is the most nutritious meal — or the only meal — some of the children will have all day.

In her first report to the directors, she said the total revenue from the last fiscal year school food service program was $1,380,000 and expenses were $1,363,316, leaving a fund balance of $236,444 plus $50,000 in equipment reserve.

The Oxford Hills School District food service program is one of the few self-supporting programs in the state, she said.

So how does she do it?

“We pay attention to numbers and try different things for participation,” she said.

Key to the department's success is participation in the federal reimbursement for school lunch and breakfast programs and the sale of a-la-carte items.

The National School Lunch Act, established in 1946 and signed into law by President Harry Truman, provides low-cost or free, healthy meals to children.

The School Breakfast Program began as a pilot project in 1966 and was made permanent in 1975. Participation in that program, which also receives some state funding, has doubled in the past two years, she said. 

The breakfast program includes hot breakfasts, such as pancakes and sausage, and the food must be served under federal guidelines. Those guidelines change every seven or eight years and can be difficult to meet, O'Leary said.

In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act presented the greatest challenges school food services have faced.

“It was the most drastic changes we've seen,” she said of those mandates.

For example, the number of fruits and vegetables that must be served with each meal to receive reimbursement has risen. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but getting students to eat their required veggies is not always easy.

A kindergarten student must have the equivalent of one cup of fruit with each reimbursable breakfast, for example.

“One apple is half a cup,” she said.

O'Leary said she and her staff have learned how to serve popular food in a more healthy way.

“For the past 10 years, the salad bar has been a huge hit,” said O'Leary, who buys vegetables and fruits from local farms, including the school district's student-run gardens at Roberts Farm Preserve in Norway. “Our salad bar beats any restaurant in town.”

French fries are no longer deep-fried. Pizza, which is a huge seller at the middle school, can be made with wheat flour and loaded with vegetables.

"It's still a business, but we still have to serve them what they want," O'Leary said. "We just alter the way we serve it." 

While the program is running smoothly, there are always new challenges, O'Leary told the directors. One of those challenges is delivering food to 10 school buildings across eight towns in the district — all from one central kitchen.

By 9:30 a.m. each school day, drivers are loading a 15-passenger van and box truck with insulated containers to get to schools that are miles from what O'Leary calls “central production” — the kitchen at the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School — where all the hot meals are cooked.

It's not as simple as loading and unloading food. Food must be kept at safe temperatures during the sometimes long journeys to the schools in the outer fringes of the district. Temperatures are checked when they leave the school, when they arrive at the receiving school and before they are served to the children.

The opening of a new middle school campus in Oxford — Middle School South — necessitated new equipment and new staff this year.

More challenges await the staff, as more children are on medically necessary special diets, such as gluten-free or peanut-free diets.

"It's a big challenge," she told the directors.

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PAUL MATTSON's picture

And it costs the taxpayers zip.

Federal Tax Revenue from the 51% that pay Income Tax and expenditures are not free and the interest will begin to strangle the Oconomy in 2014. I do applaud the efforts but they are far from being free.


Thomas Jenkins's picture

And it costs the taxpayers zip.

The comment in this article that says the lunch program in Oxford Hills doesn't cost the tax payer zip is absolutely wrong.

Money for the free/reduced lunch program comes from the federal income tax you pay as well as the state tax you pay. Money does come from other sources as well. But to say it doesn't cost the tax payer anything is absolutely wrong.

This is a great program. Having said that, why don't you ask the school district this question, "How many of the hundreds of free/reduced lunch applications filled out by the parents are verified that the student qualifies" ? I can answer that question for you, none. Some school districts have even done away with the one page application process.

Having worked at the federal level I can tell you thousands of children across the country are above the income level to qualify, but still get the free/reduced meals because their parents are aware no applications are screened. The only time verification takes place is when the school gets an official complaint. Example, a parent calls the school and wants to know why a particuliar child gets a free/reduced lunch when their parents are doctors? This rarely occurs, especially in Maine where welfare/free everything is the norm.


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