SHEFFIELD -- Students and staffers in Southern Berkshire Regional School District could face a 25 cent increase in the school lunch price as officials struggle to make up for a deficit they blame, in part, on federal regulations that promote healthier food.
The district has run-up a budget deficit of $37,780 through half the school year, according to school officials. By the fiscal year's end, the district is projected to have a loss of $74,904.
"We're losing money badly and some decisions will need to be made on operations," said district Business Administrator Bruce Turner.
A vote on the increase in the lunch price, which would raise an estimated $15,000, would likely take place within the next month -- possibly at the next meeting on Jan. 24, Turner said. The price of lunch would rise from $2.25 to $2.50 under the plan.
At a School Committee meeting last week, Director of Food Services John Tranfaglia linked the significant debt to a declining student population, fewer students buying healthier meals, and federal and state regulations restricting the sale of unhealthy but popular and profitable items on the menu.
The district is losing out on funds associated with the sale of junk food, but the sale of profitable cookies, chips, and other items would pose a risk on federal and state reimbursements.
"We could lose $70,000 in the sale of a la cart items," Tranfaglia said about government restrictions.
Tranfaglia said that a spiced low-fat chicken breast will send older health-conscious school staff members to the cafeteria, but chicken nuggets and pizza are responsible for some of the busiest school cafeteria days.
With the implementation of healthier food, Tranfaglia said, the number of school meals served has dropped from 55 percent in 2010-11, down to 48 percent, or 342 meals, in 2012-13.
The problems are compounded by the significant drop in student population. The district has 94 fewer students than three years ago, with a student population of 774.
Junk food provided a cash pot for the district, with chips, ice cream, and sugary beverages, such as Snapple, averaging a 70 percent profit, Tranfaglia said.
The state and federal regulations have slimmed down menu choices. SBRSD had offered about 50 menu items, but that has dropped down to 10 items, Tranfaglia said. Healthier food generates a slim profit margin of about 20 percent, he said.
School Committee Chairman Carl Stewart, along with others, said the federal and state health laws was promoting, "the law of unintended consequences," with students bringing unhealthy lunches from home because the school's meals weren't appetizing enough.
Tranfaglia said that the cafeteria accounts for only a single meal during a child's day -- or about 10 percent of what a child might eat -- and state legislators were overemphasizing the role school cafeteria plays in the country's obesity epidemic.
The district's would need to approve a re-allocation of Excess in Deficiency funds to cover the cafeteria budget deficit.
Turner said that the district has $745,913. The district could also be forced to re-examine staffing levels to adjust for the budget.
Turner said that the national average is 12 meals per employee an hour, but SBRSD is significantly lower at 7 to 1.
"It's serious here," Turner said.