Hinsdale District 86, Lyons Township battle with ‘cost’ of free lunches

The Hinsdale High School District 86 Board will consider participating in the National School Lunch Program to get reimbursed for the free lunches the district provides some students.

Many area school districts participate in the federal program, including Downers Grove High School District 99, Naperville Unit School District 203, and Elmhurst Unit School District 205.

But others do not, including Riverside Brookfield and Lyons Township high school districts.

In Downers Grove, 27 percent of the 5,200 students in the two high schools get a free or reduced lunch through the national program.

“Other schools might not have as many eligible,” said Mark Staehlin, controller for District 99.

“When you participate in the program, there’s a total revamping of the food. Even the pop machines and the vending machines (have) to be revamped and follow very strict guidelines,” Staehlin said.

Other drawbacks are smaller portions and more government oversight. The federal program requires school districts hire the food service company with the lowest bid.

“Many schools decide it is not worth it,” Staehlin said.

The amount of reimbursement depends on the number of free or reduced price lunches served.

Last school year, Downers Grove District 99 received $451,000 in federal reimbursement, plus $10,000 from the state.

David Sellers, director of business services for Lyons Township High School, said the School Board there periodically revisits the national school lunch program.

“The number one factor is the percentage of your students that qualify,” Sellers said.

About 520 students at LT qualify. With an enrollment of just over 4,000, that would be about 13 percent of LT students.

The district provides free lunches without being in the national lunch program.

When the percentage of students eligible is between 10 and 20 percent, a district has to take a harder look at the program, Sellers said. He does the analysis as part of LT’s budget process.

“There is a tipping point,” he said.

To partially offset the money the district loses by not participating in the national program, Sodexo, the company that has had LT’s food service contract for more than 20 years, pays the district $60,000 of its revenue.

That rebate, however, does not cover the loss of federal funds and the cost of providing free lunches.

“It costs us $50,000 not to participate in the free lunch program,” Sellers said.

But for that price, they get more control over the food service company they hire, the menu and the price charged to the rest of the students.

“The decision is more complicated than one might think,” Sellers said.

To get the federal subsidy, a student has to take a fruit and vegetable, plus two other items, even if he doesn’t wants them. If a student does not take all that’s required, it does not count as a Type A meal and does not qualify for reimbursement.

The federal program sets limits on the amount of fat and sugar, and soon sodium, in the food that can be sold in the cafeteria.

“All these would go away,” said Elena Hildreth, district manager for Quest Food Management Services, Inc., as she gestured at the brownies and chocolate chip cookies at the end of the cafeteria line in Hinsdale South High School.

Portion sizes are also smaller under the federal program. Servings of protein are limited to 2 ounces. Quest typically sells 4-ounce burgers and 5-ounce chicken patties to students in District 86, Hildreth said.

The federal requirements are designed to provide healthier meals. But the students may not like the choices that are left, school officials said. Staehlin said that is especially true in a high school where the students have not grown up eating the federal lunch menu in elementary and middle school.

District 86 Board President Claudia Manley has said she is not impressed with the current cafeteria food. Her child told her the quantity has decreased and the prices are expensive, she said.

Board member Richard Skoda said the students who pay for their lunches are subsidizing those who get free lunches, and that should stop.

District 86 will evaluate its options as it prepares to go out to bid for next year’s food service program, after six years with Quest. The contract gives the district the right to set the price for food and beverages. It also requires Quest pay $80,000 of its revenue annually to the district.

The number of students who qualify for free lunches at Central has grown from 78 in 2008 to 275 this past December. At Hinsdale South, the number of eligible students has grown from 220 to 551.

But only about half the eligible students at South take the free lunch and only about 30 at Central do, Hildreth said.

Money back Level of reimbursement to school districts through the National School Lunch Program. Free lunch: $2.93*; otherwise $2.99 Reduced price lunch: $2.53*, otherwise $2.59 (student pays 40 cents). *If fewer than 60 percent of lunches served in a preceding school year were free or reduced.

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