Opting out of school lunch program appeals as a palatable option
Students at Penn-Trafford High School aren't buying that lunches prepared under federal guidelines that restrict calories, sodium and portions are their best option.
So they literally are not buying them.
“I would say, on average, we've lost about $20,000 a year each of the last five years,” Penn-Trafford business manager Brett Lago said of lunch sales since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was enacted. “We are not in the food service industry to make money, but we don't want to lose it.”
Penn-Trafford's lagging lunch sales are part of a state and national trend since menu restrictions were tightened, federal statistics show. School lunch participation nationally dropped from 31.6 million students in 2012 to 30.4 million in 2014, according to the federal Department of Agriculture. Pennsylvania statistics show school lunch participation dropped by 86,950 students in the same two years, from 1,127,444 in 2012 to 1,040,494 in 2014.
As a solution to slumping sales, Penn-Trafford officials may opt its high school out of the National School Lunch Program, which limits meal choices, allowing them to put favorites like Pizza Hut pizza back on the menu.
“We've had some issues concerning regulations from the NSLP and how they are affecting menu selection and preparation,” Lago said. “I think (the guidelines) are very counterproductive to what they are trying to achieve.”
Lago and other critics of the federal program say it can be wasteful — requiring students to take a fruit or vegetable they don't want and won't eat, for instance. Limits on menu choices and reduced portions — especially for high school students used to buying unrestricted lunches — also mean fewer sales.
“I think this may be a trend, going forward: Districts are going to want to step back from the program,” Lago said.
National and state numbers show the trend is in its infancy. About 100,000 U.S. schools could participate in the program, and 524, or half of 1 percent, opted out in 2013-14, according to the most recent USDA figures.
In Pennsylvania, 34 of 858 districts pulled at least one school out of the program in 2015-16, according to USDA spokesman Chris Kelly.
A limiting factor in opting out is that districts lose federal meal subsidies when they do. Federal reimbursement rates this year are $3.07 per meal for students who are income-eligible for free lunches; $2.67 for those who qualify for a reduced price; and 29 cents for all others sold.
For Penn-Trafford — about 200 of the high school's 1,350 students qualify for free or reduced lunches — that means a loss of about $100,000 annually in federal subsidies.
Lago said he is “cautiously optimistic” that offering a new menu at a slightly higher cost, plus increasing a la carte sales through a broader selection of foods, could compensate for the federal shortfall.
Allegheny County's South Fayette High School used that formula to success after pulling the plug on the National School Lunch Program in the 2014-15 school year, though it had to make up only $20,000 yearly in federal subsidies. Food service director Tricia Woods said 95 percent of students now buy their lunches from the school.
“The kids love it. The percentage is high for participation,” Wood said.
Wood said much of the menu is still rooted in federal nutritional guidelines, especially those set before further restrictions called Smart Snacks in Schools were added in 2014.
“Being off the program doesn't mean you are just going wild,” she said.
The school's basic lunch menu price is $2.30; fruits and vegetables are provided, not mandated, Wood said.
“The biggest factors were that we have a huge amount of a la carte sales and low free and reduced lunch sales,” said finance director Brian Tony. “We have a positive food budget balance. I'm not arguing with the results.”
Manheim Township High School in Lancaster County was among a handful of schools in Eastern Pennsylvania that dropped out of the federal program in 2013. Food service directors there all said student participation lagged as more restrictions were added in each year after the Hunger-Free Act was passed.
“We were comfortable with the guidelines until 2013,” said Manheim food services director Gavin Scalyer.
But with the district's free- and reduced-price-eligible student population growing to 28 percent, Scalyer said, even offering a lucrative and popular a la carte menu may not be enough to cover lost federal subsidies, so Manheim is considering whether to reenter the program.
“Every school district wants to ensure that students from low-income families have access to free meals at school, so dropping out of the federal program means taking on the cost of providing those free meals,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, School Nutrition Association spokeswoman.
At private schools with few or no free-reduced lunch students — such as Sewickley Academy in Edgeworth — the decision not to participate in the federal program can be easier.
But public schools would have difficulty offering a menu of Cajun chicken pasta and beef stroganoff at a price of $5.95, as is offered at Sewickley. Metz Culinary Management, the food service provider for Sewickley, also serves Franklin Regional School District in Murrysville and Riverview School District in Oakmont, Allegheny County. Prices for lunches at those schools are $2.55 and $2.50, respectively.
“We have not been approached by any of our public school partners to move off the National School Lunch Program,” said Metz's Jim Dickson, senior vice president of education. “However, if a public school wanted to move off the NSLP, we can still provide nutritional and wholesome meals without the federal funds and maintaining a budget.”
At Penn-Trafford, food service provider Aramark is expected to present options and costs outside the federally regulated program to the school board this month. Lago said the board likely will decide by April whether to opt out of the federal program in the fall.
“The board will decide if it makes sense to try it. We would still offer healthy lunches, but we wouldn't be hamstrung,” Lago said.
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or firstname.lastname@example.org.