By Tim Rowland
If children can be particular when it comes to food, school administrators, out of necessity, can be just as fastidious when it comes to their annual budgets.
And with finances and curricula understandably absorbing so much of their time and energy, it’s no wonder the cafeteria gets pushed to the back burner. “Administrators have a lot of other things to do,” said Julie Holbrook, Shared Food Service Director for Champlain Valley Educational Services
Those who backed Farm to School programs in the Champlain Valley knew they would get nowhere if they couldn’t put a fresh, healthy meal on a cafeteria table for the same cost as highly processed heat-and-serve meals churned out by cafeterias without advanced equipment.
Conventional wisdom, Holbrook said, held that for whatever it lacked in nutritional value, the American food system was ruthlessly efficient and cost effective.
In fact, not even that was true. Cooking from scratch was cheaper and where the cost of fresh ingredients was more, those costs could be offset by restructuring cafeteria purchases and by making the meals so desirable that more students and teachers would buy lunch instead of bringing their own from home.
A further boost came in 2019 when New York State launched the 30% NY Initiative that upped school lunch reimbursements from 5.9 cents to 25 cents so long as 30% of the lunch budget was being spent on food products from New York farms.
School lunch costs $2.25, but out of that, cafeteria administrators must budget not just for food, but for everything associated with producing a meal, including utilities, insurance, and utensils. Holbrook began looking outside the cost of meals to find money that could be spent on good food.
One answer arrived on pallet-loads of plastic — disposable cups, plates, trays, and utensils, some of which were already well stocked. Cases of plastic drinking straws would show up on a truck when the school already had a whole wall full.
Not only was the plastic bad for the environment, but it was also eating up $1.16 per meal. For a system with 500 students, that represented a school year cost of nearly $210,000. Even after hiring a full-time dishwasher, that left money to buy fresh eggs and yogurt instead of Pop Tarts, pasture raised beef instead of processed chicken and fresh fruits and vegetables instead of canned.
And while opening a case of Danish or warming up frozen pizza is certainly easier, cooking from scratch is a big money saver. Processed Alfredo sauce, Holbrook’s team found, was three times as expensive as homemade. Holbrook said she is able to get deals on basic foods that other school kitchens use less frequently, like flour.
For 2,000 students, the schools are able to save more than $81,000 annually on pizza alone, by making it from scratch.
Beyond that, scratch cooking, in ways processed food products don’t allow, lends itself to the repurposing of leftovers. If there are peppers left on the salad bar, they will find their way into the next day’s chicken fajitas. “We are obnoxiously frugal,” Holbrook said. “We analyze things to death.”
Instead of menu-planning by rote, districts that participate in Farm to School programs remain flexible, allowing them to shift costs, taking advantage of bargains and using the savings for locally grown products. Food Service Directors work strategically, using their government food allocation on items that aren’t available locally at an affordable cost. Obtaining items like chicken and turkey from the government foods allows them to free up other parts of their budget to purchase local ground beef, carrots, and apples. The movement has also learned to economize labor; if the cafeteria staff is making a sauce, it’s just as easy to make a double batch and put one in the freezer.
Along with cost cutting, cafeterias sell more meals when the food is good, meaning fewer children and teachers bring lunch from home. Like any other business, the more product sold, the higher the profits.
The results have been eye-opening. In one year, the Plattsburgh City School District’s cafeterias sold an additional 40,000 breakfasts and an additional 76,000 lunches. With government-meal reimbursement rates, that translated into an extra $440,000 in revenue. In one school year, Plattsburgh’s cafeteria budget went from $148,000 in the hole to $168,000 in the black.
Farm to School had worked for farmers, it had worked for students, and now it had worked for school budgets as well. The next job became convincing other districts that it all wasn’t too good to be true.
This is part three in a series of five articles; you can read the other stories in this series here.