New school lunch regulations mean financial losses for Pittsfield Public Schools

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PITTSFIELD -- In a year of transition toward healthier school lunches, the Pittsfield Public Schools food service budget is headed for an operating loss of more than $100,000.

While half the total deficit resulted from the necessary mid-year replacement of an aging food warming line system, there was also a drop in the number of lunches served and in revenue from snacks and drinks, officials said.

Citing a quarterly report for the period ending March 30, Kristen C. Behnke, assistant superintendent for business and finance, told School Committee members recently that the operating deficit stood at $72,084. She said it was projected to reach about $120,000 when final figures are in through the end of the school year.

Behnke said she wanted to point the figures out to the committee because "we've had healthy profits in this account in the past."

The reason, she said, other than the nearly $60,000 spent to replace the failing food warming line at Pittsfield High School, relates to new federal nutrition guidelines that took effect, and to a state nutrition law that limits the types of snack foods and drinks that can be sold in public schools.

"This [deficit] is in line with what is happening around the state," she added.

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The number of meals served has fallen, and revenue from snacks is well below the level from the prior year. Another factor cited was the higher cost of providing healthier foods, including more fruits and vegetables, with student meals. Behnke said that has increased food costs by 16 percent.

Sylvana Bryan, food service director in Pittsfield schools, said there is hope the number of meals served daily will return to previous levels next year because of a change in the federal regulations.

The amounts of protein -- such as from meat or cheese -- that could be served, and the total servings of grains, were restricted in the guidelines, Bryan said, but those limits have been lifted.

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That means schools can again offer popular alternative lunch items, such as those with more meat or bread, she said.

The average school lunch count was down 74 lunches per day during March, for instance, from the prior March. Total lunches served at the 12 city schools fell from 3,971 in March 2012 to 3,882 this March.

The loss of revenue from a la carte snack items at the high schools was reported at $60,291 for the school year through May, according to the report to the School Committee.

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The reasons seem apparent given the list of snacks allowed in the high schools in the past -- including chocolate chip cookies, ice cream sandwiches, frozen yogurt, flavored water, and Italian ice -- that are not allowed today under the Massachusetts guidelines.

Bryan said snacks and drinks must meet guidelines for sugar content as a percentage of calories, overall calories, portion size, fat content and other factors. This has forced the removal of popular items, such as ice cream and flavored water drinks, because of sugar content.

Students at Pittsfield High School purchased fewer snacks than those at Taconic High School, and officials assume that had much to do with the closer proximity of PHS to downtown stores or restaurants.

On the plus side, Bryan said, the food industry is adapting by developing new products that meet school lunch guidelines. "They know the schools are big business," she said.

"This is also a transitional year for all of us in finding out what the kids want [for lunch] and we want to move forward," she said.

Bryan said she intends to work new food items into the program next year and will "have some taste tests" to gauge student reactions.


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