By Kathryn G. Menu
The Sag Harbor School Board of Education agreed to opt out of the National School Lunch Program Monday night, after learning varying standards for children in different grade levels would require the district to expand its cafeteria facilities and staff, and that non-compliance could result in a fine upward of $50,000.
That said, Superintendent Katy Graves vowed the district would maintain nutritious menus for all students, and that those eligible for free or reduced cost lunches would not be impacted by the change.
According to business administrator Jennifer Buscemi, on October 1, the Child Nutrition Program Administration of the State Department of Education, which administers the National Breakfast and Lunch programs for the federal government, contacted the district informing it that it would conduct an evaluation at Pierson Middle-High School, including an on-site visit. Evaluations are performed every three years for any program receiving reimbursement through the program, according to the department of education.
Three years ago, said Ms. Buscemi, the district’s food service program was found to be in compliance.
“But since 2013, many things have changed in the program because of the Healthy Hunger Act,” she said, referring to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, originally signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010, with revisions made several times since.
While the food service program is in compliance with many requirements within the program, Ms. Buscemi said when it comes to what federal guidelines refer to as “Meal Pattern & Nutritional Quality,” the district falls short, but only because it is offering the same meals to children in middle and high school.
“The menu planning guidelines are geared specifically towards age and grade groups,” she explained. Under the National Breakfast Program, menu guidelines are available for a kindergarten through 12th grade school, meaning the district could easily comply with that program, she said.
“For lunch, that is a different story,” said Ms. Buscemi. “There is no K-12 menu plan for lunch and the age/grade groups are broken up into K-5, 6-8, and 9-12.”
“We would essentially have to be producing two separate meals, and two separate lunches each day for those grade groups, which right now is really impossible to do with the amount of equipment, staff and space we have down there.”
According to the National School Lunch Program guidelines, a lunch for students in grades 6-8 can only contain between 600 and 700 calories to be considered reimbursable. However, lunch for students in grades 9-12 must have between 750 and 850 calories. High school students also have 2 ounces of meat or meat alternatives and 2 ounces of grains offered daily, compared to 1 ounce of both for middle school students. At least half a cup of fruit must be offered to children in grades 6-8, while a full cup is required in high school for a lunch to be reimbursable under the program. High school students are required to have 1 cup of vegetables daily, with middle school student lunches demanding ¾ cup of vegetables. Vegetables are also broken down into dark green, red/orange, legumes, starchy, and other, with half the vegetable categories requiring different serving sizes for middle and high school students.
“Does any school, unless they are enormous, have the staff to do this every day?” asked board member Chris Tice.
“A lot of schools are not combined like we are,” noted Ms. Buscemi. “It’s a lot easier when you don’t have the combined grades. If you had all your elementary in one building, all your middle in one building and all your high school in one building it would be very different. I do know the one school that is very similar to us — the Manhasset School District — they are a fairly wealthy community, they have a really good educational program, but they also have a combined middle-high school and they knew they would never be in compliance and opted out of the program.”
Board member Diana Kolhoff wondered if the standards on one side or the other could be applied for the whole middle high school without breaking compliance. Ms. Buscemi said because the specifications are across the board, and not just in areas like maximum sodium levels, it would be difficult to comply without serving different meals and servings for middle and high school students.
“You have to serve a minimum to the high school, and if you try and serve that minimum to the middle school you have exceeded what you are allowed to serve to the middle school, and that is the challenge,” said Ms. Tice.
“This is the problem we are having — we have tried to sit down and find a way to do K-12, but there isn’t and it is impossible for us to be able to serve those two lunches every day for different grade levels,” said Ms. Buscemi. “The milk requirement is the same for K-12 so we are still going to participate in the milk program.”
That program brings in about $5,000 annually, she said.
If a district is found to not be in compliance and cannot complete a corrective action plan, three years of reimbursements will have to be paid back to the state. The Sag Harbor School District would have to give back $52,983, according to Ms. Buscemi’s calculations.
However, Ms. Buscemi said after talking with the Child Nutrition Program Administration, she believes as long as the district opts out of the program prior to the site visit it will not have to pay back those funds.
“It ends up being $18,000 or $19,000 we would not being reimbursed for if we opt out,” said Ms. Tice.
“We are very sensitive to the impact of this decision,” said Ms. Buscemi, “and we don’t feel the program should change in any way for the public, the middle and high schoolers. It really should run the same way as it is running as if we were still participating.”
Students who are eligible for free lunch, will remain eligible, and the district will continue to accept applications for free and reduced lunches locally, auditing 100-percent of them, according to Ms. Buscemi.
The general fund will cover the cost of free and reduced price lunches, she added.
“We will also continue to provide nutritious, healthy meals, mirroring but not duplicating federal and state meal pattern guidelines,” said Ms. Buscemi. In the 2014-15 school year, the breakfast and lunch program was in the black by $7,695 before the general fund subsidy of $15,000 was taken into account meaning a total of $22,695 was available at the end of the fiscal year as fund balance for food service at Pierson.
“I believe we would not have to increase the subsidy from the general fund, which means no increased costs to taxpayers, and we just have to keep making improvements to the lunch operation so we have money at the end of the year profit wise.”
Opting back into the program, added Ms. Buscemi, is always an option once the space in the lunchroom is expanded.