Parents of children attending school in the Pocantico Hills Central district discovered this week that there is such thing as a free lunch, just not a paid one.
A letter went out from the district to parents on Monday announcing that the school lunch program would be cancelled for its paying customers. The free lunch program, however, would continue.
The letter cited budget constraints and staffing issues, giving these figures:
- At the end of the last school year, two-thirds of the support staff who served the lunches retired.
- The annual subsidy of $90,000 included in the school budget to maintain the program has “consistently been insufficient to balance program revenues and expenses despite the significant cost saving measures put into place. In fact, in 2011-2012, the cost to operate the program was $122,544 over and above the revenues received from the sale of the lunches and support from the Federal and State Government.”
- The district twice tried to collect bids to hire a management company to operate the lunch program, but received no proposals. They also tried to form a cooperative agreement with partnering schools, with no luck.
At least one angry parent of two children in the district, Paula McCarthy, couldn’t understand why they couldn’t replace support staff, noting the hefty salaries of top administrators.
"I am very upset for the kids because they look forward to the different menus and to socialize with the cafeteria staff," McCarthy said. "Also there are plenty of people who need jobs in this county, and they should replace the staff that retired; the school can certainly afford to buy food and service for the kids if they can afford such high salaries for the Administration Staff."
Friday, October 19 will be the last date lunches are available. Items in the lunches offered until then include edamame, spinach salad, zucchini sticks, bagel sandwiches. The cost, with milk, is only $2. After Oct. 19, the students will still be able to purchase milk and snacks.
“We will continue to serve lunches to students who are eligible for free and reduced lunches,” concluded the letter.
I wondered if the free and reduced lunches would be as healthy as the $2 ones, and if the cost of trying to make lunches healthier at only $2 each was a factor in the program's demise. Certainly this is a struggle for any school these days trying to provide better lunches for their students despite tighter budget constraints.
School Board President John Conrad said the free lunches are the same as the paid ones. And in his tenure on the Board raising prices on the lunches was never really an option. "Our fear was always that we would further negatively impact the already low participation rate with any increase in price," he said. "Our view has been that it was better to enhance the lunch program and close the budget gap through increased participation than to raise prices."
Conrad said raised prices would never make up for the losses anyway. According to his calculation, the lunch program has cost district taxpayers more than $800,000 over the course of six years. "That number alone is startling and we must now consider the impact of the New York State 2 percent tax cap," he said.
A second letter went out later this week from Superintendent Valencia Douglas answering concerns and getting deeper into the history of the program and its dissolution, saying that the program had gone down in popularity from about 360 students to 308, with measures to make food more enticing to students apparently not working. The district had increased the amount dedicated to the lunch program from $60,000 to the present $90,000, which still fell far short.
In her letter, Douglas said the district and the PTA would form a committee to find a more permanent solution to the problem and that all input from the community is welcome. Both letters are attached here in PDF.
"To date we have yet to find any district our size that provides a full lunch program," Douglas said.
Are you a parent of a child attending Pocantico schools? Do you participate in the lunch system? Will you miss it when it's gone? Tell us in the comments.