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.

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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