School Lunch Program on Path to Sustainability

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Saturday April 04, 2009 - 10:25:00 AM

Starting next year, Berkeley Unified School District’s food services program will have to pay for itself, but district officials say they won’t let finances undermine quality. 

Ever since chef Ann Cooper took the helm of the district’s nutrition services department three and a half years ago with the help of a grant from the Chez-Panisse Foundation, she has worked to make the program healthier and self-sustaining by increasing student participation. 

At a Berkeley Board of Education meeting last week, Cooper, who is leaving in June for Colorado’s Boulder Valley School District, told BUSD officials how far the program has come. 

“One of the things that I told you last year, that we have really managed to do finally, now that all the infrastructure is in place, is to raise the meal count, and we have,” a beaming Cooper announced. “That has been our major push because, raising participation is how we can raise our budget, and the budget we have is balanced.” 

Cooper’s projected budget for 2009-10 shows that the district will no longer be contributing money to food services in 2009-10 from its general fund. 

In 2006-07 the district gave $742,743 to the program. In 2007-08, the amount went down substantially to $217,723 before rising slightly to $300,000 this year. 

“Our plan is not to impact the general fund at all next year,” district Superintendent Bill Huyett told the Daily Planet after the meeting. “There will be a reduction in some staff and we are proposing a small increase in meal costs. We will have to continue to increase the number of students eating lunch. If it doesn’t break even, we will work on the fiscal end of it. We won’t compromise on quality.” 

Cooper said that for the program to become budget neutral, it was imperative to have a certain amount of kids eating lunch at school every day. 

Currently, middle and elementary schoolers can choose to bring lunch from home or eat lunches served at school. 

Students at open-campus Berkeley High School have other options—dozens of cheap fast-food restaurants right down the street. Just 10 percent of Berkeley High students eat school-provided lunches. 

But Cooper explained that the problem wasn’t “one school or the other—we have to increase the number in general.” 

Cooper, along with district Nutrition Services Manager Marney Posey and Executive Chef Bonnie Christensen, has been putting up banners, writing to parents and attending PTA meetings for the last few months to get the word out about the lunch program. 

She said that she would be able to talk more about the results of the outreach in May. 

“We have been in the newspaper, gone on the radio—done everything we could to promote the program,” she said. “And our numbers show we have done a good job.” 

Cooper said that the new Dining Commons at King Middle School—which replaced the aging facility at Jefferson Elementary School as the district’s central kitchen last fall—was now serving between 7,500 and 8,000 meals. 

“The numbers are significantly up since I came,” she said. “And the food is probably some of the best we have ever made. Last year we were serving canned pinto beans. Now we are cooking all beans from scratch because we have the equipment. That saves us money.” 

Cooper said that after she left in summer, Posey, Christensen and the rest of her team would carry on her work. 

“I have the utmost confidence in them,” she said. “The program is sustainable and systemic now that the budget is neutral.” 

Referring to a three-year budget comparison submitted to the district, Cooper said the district’s total meal count had gone up from 1 million in 2006-07 to 1.7 million this year. 

“We are continuing to see growth,” she said, explaining that the total number of free, reduced and paid lunch meals is up seven percent from this time last year. That number is projected to grow by 3 percent in 2009-10. 

Initial results from a three-year survey conducted by UC Berkeley’s Center for Weight and Health show that among schools participating in Berkeley’s School Lunch Initiative, students who ate lunch at school consumed more than three times as many vegetables as children who brought lunch from home. 

Cooper acknowledged that while revenue had increased from $3 million in 2006-07 to $3.5 million this year, food costs had gone up disproportionately. 

The district spent close to $1.5 million this year compared with $1 million dollars last year on food purchases, but is expected to reduce costs by 3 percent in 2009-10. 

Personnel expenses for the district’s nutrition services department increased from $1.6 million in 2006-07 to $1.9 million this year, something Cooper attributed to a retroactive pay adjustment for 2007-08.  

Staffing costs for next year are estimated to be $1.8 million. 

“We are trying to figure out ways to bring additional revenue for the department,” Cooper told the board. She is proposing an increase in lunch prices in 2009-10, which would see meals at elementary, middle and high schools increase by 25 or 50 cents. 

Cooper also said the program has contacted a camp about the possibility of providing meals during summer.