Milford school food program in the red

MILFORD – The Milford food service program is expected to be self-funding, but has been running a deficit every year for five years.

Student enrollments have gone down, and so is the number of students buying breakfast and lunch, with 172,000 meals served in 2015-16 compared with 224,000 in 2006-07.

Officials went over the facts and figures at the Monday, May 15 school board meeting, and talked with the district’s three kitchen managers.

Milford schools are part of the National School Lunch Program, overseen by the Department of Agriculture, which provides commodity foods and cash reimbursement for each meal served.

The Obama administration’s Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act introduced strict nutrition requirements for things such as sodium, fat, and fruits and vegetables. School District Business Administrator Jennifer Burk said the government requires them to buy tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of fruits and vegetables each year, and that a lot gets thrown away.

Under the Trump administration, the Department of Agriculture is beginning to relax some of the requirements. New Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue recently unveiled an interim rule to suspend requirements for sodium reduction and whole-grain and to allow chocolate milk back into school cafeterias.

“The federal government has got its hand in our pots and stirring it up really bad,” board Chairman Ron Carvell said about the old rules.

But Mary Ann Gallagher, food service manager at Milford High School, told the School Board the quality of food commodities has improved greatly in recent years, and that students have grown used to the healthier food.

“I wouldn’t go back to white bread and white pasta,” she said.

Rocio Johnson, food service manager at the Heron Pond and Jacques schools, also said the quality of the food from the USDA is excellent, and that declining participation must be related to declining enrollments.

At the start, the requirement for more vegetables was difficult to deal with, she said, but she made adjustments. When she noticed students wouldn’t eat sweet potatoes and squash, for example, she stopped ordering them and instead bought carrots “and buttered them up and made them tastier.”

The children won’t eat chickpeas alone, but will eat them in a seasoned three-bean salad, she said.

Rita Johnson, kitchen manager at the middle school, said not enough children are receiving free and reduced-priced lunches – only 90 out of 600 children – because their parents don’t apply.

Based on family incomes, 20 percent of Milford students are eligible, which means about 30 kids in the middle school who should get the reduced-price lunches don’t. So she said she feeds them anyway.

Burk talked about all of the ways the School District has tried to get parents to sign their children up, and how the entire process is confidential and no one gets singled out.

Recently, Johnson said, one student told her, “I know we owe a lot of money, and I gave my dad the form and keep asking him to fill it out.”

Over her 33 years with the district, she said, this is the worst.

“One boy put dimes, nickels and pennies in my hand and said, ‘This is all I have,’ “ Johnson said.

Carvell said the board recognizes the food directors’ challenges, and that the district needs to be ready to react when federal regulations ease up. Board member Bob Willette said it sounds as if federal nutrition regulations are the biggest problem.

Two blocks from the school, he said, a church serves a free breakfast every Friday. It offers bagels, honey buns and cream cheese, he said.

In a memo to other school officials, Burk said there are two options: raising lunch prices or taking money out of the general fund. Raising prices, however, would likely result in a significant decrease in participation, she said.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.