By Marcello Iaia
HILLTOWNS — Berne-Knox-Westerlo is hoping to make up financial losses to its meal program while students adjust to new rules. Like others across the country, Berne-Knox-Westerlo students have a distaste for new federal dietary guidelines, and food services director Deborah Rosko has seen more bagged lunches since the guidelines took effect in September.
Described by district Business Official David Hodgkinson as a “perfect storm,” a drop in participation, rising food and labor costs, and modest general-fund transfers have caused an estimated shortfall of almost $90,000 for the meal program. The annual expenses are over $400,000.
Budget estimates presented at the board of education meeting on Feb. 4 included a transfer of $70,000 to bring down the food services deficit.
School cafeterias often run in the red, kept afloat by transfers made from districts’ general funds. Such transfers were not made in years when BKW was operating on a contingency budget.
Other schools have dropped the United States Department of Agriculture’s food programs, like the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, after new guidelines emphasizing fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, with limits on proteins, sodium, and calories, this year led to student grumbling and losses in participation.
BKW has seen an average drop in participation from last year to this year of approximately 64 elementary lunches and 37 secondary school lunches per day. In that same period, breakfasts dropped by 19 in the elementary school, and increased by 7 in the secondary school.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 directed the United States Department of Agriculture to update school food programs in accordance with its 2010 dietary guidelines, which are reviewed every five years with the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
An additional six cents per meal is available when directors are certified to be in compliance with the new rules, which require daily and weekly targets for meal components. Rosko spends hours each week on her computer, reporting on the four different menus she creates for different age groups. It amounts to an additional $3,000 for BKW.
“And that 6 cents certainly isn’t worth that 36-cent orange that I’m buying. It’s like, it’s hardly worth it,” said Rosko, who chairs the state public policy and legislative committee for the New York School Nutrition Association.
Rosko said that BKW raised the price of paid lunches by 20 cents to $2.10 in the elementary school and $2.20 in the high school, but the increase does not compensate for the larger cost of more fruits and vegetables.
At some districts opting out, students who pay for meals subsidize the cost of those who qualify for free and reduced-price meals. Nearly a third — 32 percent — of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, based on family income.
Guilderland has 9.15 percent of students eligible, and Voorheesville has 6 percent, where a new lunch program without federal money began this month.
Hodgkinson said BKW would be worse off without the federal and state reimbursements, which are based on the number of meals served.
Rosko has been BKW’s food-service director for 24 years, and has introduced healthier foods, like whole grains and dark green vegetables, before the new guidelines, which she said came “too much, too soon.”
“I’ve made more lunches this year than I ever have in my life...because it’s not enough food for my athletes,” said board of education member Jill Norray when Rosko described the new guidelines at the Jan. 22 board meeting.
Students are required to have at least one half-cup portion of fruit or vegetables on their plates, and a cup of each must be offered. Weekly calorie and sodium amounts must fall within designated ranges.
A high school lunch, for instance, must average 850 calories and 740 milligrams of sodium each week. The 2010 dietary guidelines recommend 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day, and 1,500 for children. A moderately active high school age female should have 2,000 calories a day and a high-school male should have at least 2,400.
Sodium and calorie-dense foods, like Rosko’s Buffalo chicken wrap, are served infrequently.
“If they ate everything on their plate, I think they would be satisfied, but you can’t go from a society who has overeaten their whole life, then suddenly, drastically change. It’s a learning process,” said Rosko, who sometimes visits classrooms to speak about nutrition.
In the past, Rosko has done taste tests to introduce new foods, carrying trays of food samples as students file through the lunch line, but she says the time spent complying with the new guidelines has left her looking for volunteers.
On staff development days, Rosko and her staff cook and serve omelets with home fries and coffee for $3.50. She said the net contribution from that to the cafeteria’s bottom line is around $300 a year.
She is now looking for opportunities to cater sports banquets and recently prepared strawberry cheesecake sundaes for a Valentine’s Day fund-raiser.
Rosko has a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Schenectady Community College and worked several years as a hotel chef and kitchen manger at the Empire State Plaza.