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Penn-Trafford High meal service in black after leaving National School Lunch Program

Patrick Varine
| Friday, Feb. 17, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
A salad bar at Penn-Trafford High School on Feb. 17, 2017.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
A salad bar at Penn-Trafford High School on Feb. 17, 2017.
Junior Chase Zavarella, 17, of Penn Township pays for his lunch at Penn-Trafford High School on Feb. 17, 2017.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Junior Chase Zavarella, 17, of Penn Township pays for his lunch at Penn-Trafford High School on Feb. 17, 2017.

In previous years when they headed to lunch, Penn-Trafford High School students had to wait in longer lines for fewer choices, and the district's food-service program was losing money.

This year, administrators chose to have the high school opt out of the National School Lunch Program, and they are on pace to be back in the black, budget-wise.

“We've lost, to date, about $40,000 worth of reimbursement, but our sales are up about $50,000 over last year,” district Business Manager Brett Lago said.

Lunch prices range from $3.20 to $4.50.

“The participation has gone from about 25 to 45 percent, and we're still providing free lunches to all those students who would have been eligible under the school lunch program,” Lago said.

National School Lunch Program guidelines limit what school cafeterias are able to serve in terms of calorie and sodium limits and also mandated that students be served certain items.

In the past, a lot of those items — fruits and vegetables in particular — ended up in the garbage.

“The trash cans were always full, sometimes overflowing,” said senior Brianna Lander, 18, of Harrison City. “You don't see that now. People would go up to the snack line and get random junk food, where now you can get an actual meal and eat it.”

After a complete remodel, the high school cafeteria is set up like a food court, with a deli and panini station, a grill, a main course counter, and pizza and a la carte stations.

“You get to choose what you want instead of being sort of funneled in and only having one choice,” said junior Chase Zavarella, 17, of Penn Township. “I think everyone is happier with the new selection.”

That includes Lago, who said administrators decided to take advantage of updated kitchen facilities and the fact that free lunches come at a lower cost for high school students.

“(The high school) involved the least risk,” he said of the decision to opt out of the federal program. “Plus, kids at that age, they're a little more informed and better at making smart choices for themselves because we still have a lot of healthy options. But as far as meal guidelines, you can't say that a 300-pound football player and a 90-pound cheerleader have the same (dietary) needs on a daily basis.”

Just as important for administrators, the food-service budget is looking healthier than previous years.

“The preliminary estimate was that we would lose up to $100,000 based on the federal reimbursement, but that was kind of the worst-case scenario if we didn't increase sales,” Lago said. “Right now, we're looking at breaking even at the high-school level and hopefully the rest of the district as well.”

For Lander and Zavarella, the wide range of choices is what's most important.

“There's more of a variety of different things,” Lander said. “People actually leave full now.”

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2862 or pvarine@tribweb.com.

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