By Krysta Huber
With an $11.2 million bill on the horizon for Lexington’s new Waddell Elementary School, City Council member Frank Friedman has an idea to spend money more efficiently: restructuring the school district’s cafeteria system.
But addressing the $25,000-yearly losses in cafeteria operations is trickier than expected because of regulations imposed by the state of Virginia.
The cafeterias at Waddell and Lylburn Downing Middle School don’t generate a profit because the state mandates the school district can charge elementary school students only $2.15 per meal and middle school students $2.40 per meal.
Lexington City Schools Superintendent Dan Lyons said these prices don’t cover the costs of running the cafeteria because the school district doesn’t serve enough lunches to do so. About 240 meals are served each day.
Lexington taxpayers make up for the $25,000 yearly loss through real estate taxes. Forty cents of every $100 dollars paid in real estate taxes goes toward the cafeteria deficit.
Lyons said the price limits have prevented the city from contracting cafeteria operations to a private company.
“We’re not allowed to charge whatever we want,” Lyons said. “So food services can’t come in and make money because the only way to do that is to sell a lot of meals.”
Twenty-five percent of the students who eat in the Lexington cafeterias receive either a free or price-reduced lunch. Lyons said it is imperative that the school district participate in the state lunch program for these students’ benefit.
“Kids need to eat,” Lyons said. “At the elementary level, there are kids who get a hot breakfast and hot lunch and those might be their only meals for the day.”
The finances of school lunches is complicated by other rules, such as maintaining certain nutritional values in each meal. Lyons said it is difficult to provide healthy options at lower prices because organic foods and fresh produce are more expensive than canned fruits and vegetables.
But Lexington City Council member Frank Friedman said that when it comes to balancing all of the state regulations, the school district must remember its bottom line.
“Is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread nutritious?” he asked. “There are many people who would say ‘no’ because white bread is one of the worst things you could possibly eat and there’s sugar in the other ingredients.”
“But the original spirit of providing meals at school was providing meals to students who weren’t receiving a meal, period.”
Friedman said the push to provide healthier food creates another area of losses because children waste food by throwing it away.
“It is always challenging to give the children what they want to eat,” he said. “Having joined my kids for meals in elementary school, it was astonishing to see the amount of food that was thrown away.”
Janice Burguieres, a first grade teacher at Waddell, agreed with Friedman. She said she thinks state regulation contributes to this waste because it requires the students take everything that comes with the meal and put it on their plates.
“I’ve noticed on the days where it’s a healthier meal, kids won’t eat it as much,” Burguieres said. “Kids will eat their fruit but they’ll throw their salad away.”
To find a better balance between pricing and healthy options, Friedman suggested that Lexington schools combine cafeteria efforts with the city’s Meals on Wheels program. Friedman said that while state mandates will continue to put the school cafeterias at a loss, the partnership could at least minimize expenses.
“If we could pay someone $3 through the Meals on Wheels program, who cooks something that meets the school standards, then you could eliminate at least some of the staff in the cafeterias,” Friedman said.
But Lyons said he doesn’t think the cafeterias could serve food with any fewer staff members than they currently have. Across the two cafeterias, there are currently six part-time employees and one full-time employee.
“No matter who makes the meal, you still need two people: one to serve and one to collect the money,” he said.
Lyons said a partnership with Meals on Wheels might function more effectively if all of the meals were cooked in the school cafeterias.
“Then overall we would be serving more people and cooking more food, which would help with the [operating costs],” he said.
Friedman said that as a city council member, he raises issues like the cafeteria system to help create the best learning environment for students.
“When you start raising issues like this, it’s done for no other reason than trying to figure out what’s in the best interest for children,” Friedman said. “In public education you’re always looking at investment – to have a better, smarter, healthier, more capable next generation.”