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Homer-Center hikes meal fees, eyes new cafeteria management proposals

Jeff Himler
| Thursday, July 5, 2012, 5:21 p.m.

Homer-Center students will pay 10 cents more for school meals in the fall as district officials continue to eye options for future operation of the district's food service program.

The dime hike, approved at last Thursday's school board meeting, will increase lunch prices to $2.10 at the elementary school and $2.35 at the high school. Breakfast at either school will cost $1.10.

Following the meeting, school board President Vicki Smith explained the hike is being driven by a request from state officials that districts gradually increase the price of their paid lunches to match the amount allotted for meals that are provided free of charge to qualifying students. She noted officials are concerned that funds provided for the free lunches may be helping to subsidize meals for students who are able to pay.

"It's another thing forced on us by the government," she said.

The school board also authorized development of a request for proposals and subsequent bids from food-service management companies that might be interested in taking over operation of the district's cafeteria program.

The proposals are expected to address changing requirements of the National School Lunch Program, including the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

According to a release issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will require districts to implement new nutrition standards for school lunches beginning in 2012-13 with new standards for school breakfasts to be phased in over the following two school years.

The lunch standards include: increasing the amount of menu items that are rich in whole grains; offering only fat-free or low-fat milk; scaling calories and portion sizes to the age of children being served; increasing the focus on reducing saturated fat, trans fat and sodium content; ensuring both fruits and vegetables are offered every day.

Nutrition standards also will apply to food and beverages sold in vending machines located at school facilities.

District officials said it has yet to be determined whether Homer-Center will switch to an outside firm to manage its cafeteria program. "We will go out and see what the bids would be," district Business Manager Beverly Gardner said.

The H-C cafeteria currently is operated in-house by district employees including members of the Homer-Center Educational Support Professionals Association.

Last year, school board members cited a past history of financial losses at the cafeteria as a problem that needed addressed, and they received food-service management proposals from two companies -- Nutrition Inc. and Metz.

No action was taken on those offers as the board continued to negotiate with HCESPA?for a new labor contract and approved steps meant to help improve cafeteria finances. H-C began charging $1 for breakfasts, which had been served for free, and approved a previous price hike for lunches. Also, expanded sales of a la carte items were authorized while cafeteria positions that became vacant weren't filled.

Gardner noted the cafeteria program ended the 2011-12 school year in the black. The budgeted transfer of district dollars to the food service fund has been set at $94,558 for the coming school year, down from $136,125 for 2011-12.

Cafeteria workers and other members of HCESPA?have been continuing to work under the terms of their previous contract, which expired on June 30, 2011.

HCESPA?members recently voted in favor of a state fact-finder's report that supported the union's position on several issues, including a recommendation that the cafeteria program continue to be operated by district employees. The school board rejected the report.

Now, Smith indicated, the two sides have reached a "final impasse" in contract talks. She said the board intends to consult with district solicitor Daniel Cooper to consider its options.

Brooke Elliott, a UniServ representative for the Pennsylvania State Education Association who is serving as a negotiator for HCESPA, contended that the talks have not come to a final impasse.

She said the union received what was described as a "last, best" offer from the district but did not respond at its last meeting and now likely will wait until the district receives the new food-service management proposals.

At that point, she said, the union will have the right to offer its own competing proposal.

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