Food Service Improvements Expected at SAU

HAMPSTEAD – One of the things that struck Earl Metzler when he took over as Superintendent of the School Administrative Unit (SAU) 55 covering Hampstead and Timberlane school districts was the food service situation. It was a losing proposition, and going forward he knew the debt could not be carried forward on an annual basis. The options were to fix it or budget for the debt. He opted for the former. So he set out to identify what was wrong with the existing system and how best to fix it and make it at least a break even operation.

Metzler solicited and received the support of the Food Service vendor Whitsons and put both school districts on notice that the Food Service losses were unacceptable and things had to change. Hampstead’s losses were much less than Timberlane.
He also stuck to his guns that not serving middle and elementary school age students a meal because their parents had more than a $20 food debt was not acceptable. But he made clear that the parental debt was unacceptable as well.
Asked what the specifics were that he identified as creating the Food Service issues, Metzler said pricing, collection of debt, communication, and student choices were at the heart of the problems. He went on to indicate that through digging he discovered that many eligible families were not taking advantage of the Free and Reduced Meal program, where schools are reimbursed for these meals by the federal government. He called this a double whammy, with food being provided, more instances of debt being created and the loss of reimbursement money.
His approach was to meet with the schools’ food managers and empower them to take charge of the food service operation.
“I needed to listen to their concerns and to make sure they had whatever they needed to make the program work,” he said. “Working with me and the school food service managers was Whitsons. Whitsons had to be held accountable for making the system work the way it should and for the operation to break even or better.”
Like peeling an onion, Metzler and Assistant Superintendent Roxanne Wilson and the districts’ school administrators worked their way down through the layers of the Food Service operation, assessing how each issue identified was causing problems and how it could be improved and the overall program turned around.
The losses last year amounted to $150,000 in the Food Service operation but that has changed, and both Timberlane and Hampstead districts have pluses rather than negative numbers so far this year.
“We have bills still to come in but I am pleased that we are doing so much better this year,” Metzler said. “The important numbers that jump out are in Hampstead, where we were at a negative $20,000 last year. This year we have a positive $3,914. In Timberlane at this time last year, we were looking at a $57,424 loss; this year we have a positive amount of $20,111. That’s a huge turn around. The nine kitchen managers have led the way in turning this program around. They’re running their kitchens as though they were their own restaurants. We have Whitsons involved in collections and the individual school administrators, particularly in Hampstead at the elementary and middle schools, working on communication with parents who have food service debts. And, as we speak there are committees at work on revising the two districts’ policies and developing a single, consistent policy that will cover both districts, since this is run out of the SAU.”
Metzler said he leaned on the kitchen managers and on Whitsons and both have stepped up and are doing an incredible job. He said the pricing has been addressed in several ways. The cost of lunches was bumped up by 10 cents and more families who are eligible for the Free and Discounted meals have been persuaded to take advantage of the program. Beyond that, Whitsons is dealing with parents with negative food service debts, as are the individual school administrators who are responsible for determining hardship cases and figuring out how to address that need. Metzler said there has been an improvement in pricing of purchases and in the cost of labor and delivery as well.
Hampstead has handled the food service issues better than Timberlane, he admitted, but expressed confidence that both districts were on track to have at least a break-even year. If the food service program should make money, he said any profits would be plowed back into the program in terms of upgrading or adding equipment.
While he said he fields complaints from all sides of the food service issues, he opposes not feeding kids meals and has no intention of changing that position. He doesn’t want to offer “alternate” meals for those with food service debts and while at the Timberlane High School level students with debt of more than $20 are denied meals, that isn’t going to happen to middle or elementary age kids.
“When parents go online to make a deposit, it costs the district $2.79,” he said. “That is unacceptable, particularly when many deposits are for just $5. This is one of the issues we are going to change, perhaps going to a Paypal or some other kind of payment service, but the districts can’t continue to pick up that kind of debt that amounts to $50,000 or more a year.
Hampstead students have had choices in their meals for some time but this year for the first time Timberlane students are receiving choices. Whitsons conducted a student survey at Hampstead Middle School and the winning selections are featured as “Kids Choice” every Thursday in November and December. At Hampstead Central School, rewards are being given out for kids who try vegetables, and that is working.
Bottom line, Metzler said the districts have a responsibility to operate the food service program at a break-even point and he plans to stay on top of the situation until this is achieved. Communication with parents, empowering the kitchen managers, and holding Whitsons accountable have been the tools he has been applying to the system and it appears to be working.

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