District considers cutting federal program
The hot lunch program at the Crested Butte Community School is in trouble once again, but administrators hope a private company may see a future in providing meals for the school’s staff and students.
According to RE1J school district superintendent Jon Nelson, the Community School’s three kitchen staff members all have tendered their resignations—leaving open the possibility that the school won’t have a hot lunch option for the remaining 12 weeks of the school year. "We’ve been running ads for cooks," he says. "We are trying to figure out what to do with the program."
The program was topic of discussion in 2006 after Nelson notified the district that fewer students and staff were eating and paying for the hot meals served in school cafeterias, leaving the food service budget in the red.
The Gunnison District is not mandated to have a hot lunch program but district officials hope to provide some kind of food service.
One option may be to invite a private company to come in and take over the school’s kitchen, which serves breakfast, snacks and lunches. Under that option the school would abandon the federal National School Lunch Program, which provides subsidies for free and reduced lunches for some students, in favor of a private program that wouldn’t be bound by federal guidelines. A private program, for instance, would not be forced to use some unsavory foodstuffs that the government provides.
"If they’re not under the federal guidelines, they can do their own thing," Nelson says. "They wouldn’t have to use the federal commodities."
According to Nelson, fewer than 40 students qualify for free and reduced lunch in Crested Butte and the district would look for a community organization to continue to offset costs for those children. A similar program exists at the Gunnison High School.
School board president M.J. Vosburg says she thinks it’s possible. "I think we could find someone to sponsor kids that can’t afford lunch," she says, noting that the district would likely put a cap on the amount a business could charge students for meals.
Vosburg thinks it could be a good opportunity for a business to expand and the local school to improve its food service. "If the food is of high quality and good tasting, I think someone could make a really good business out of this," she says. "You have a captive audience of 500."
The Gunnison Valley School and the Crested Butte Community School have provided their own food services at an annual cost of $45,000 and the program routinely loses money. "We’ve been in the red," says Crested Butte Community School principal Stephanie Niemi.
"I think the reason the food service doesn’t make money is that it isn’t really good," Vosburg says, quick to point out that it’s not the fault of district staff. "It’s not because of the people that work there—it’s the federal restrictions on the program.”
Niemi says she too likes the idea of a private vendor, particularly if it improves the quality and range of foods. "I think if we could offer a quality product, it could be a good thing," she says.
Niemi says parents like the convenience of food at school for kids but are concerned about the quality and healthfulness of the choices. The quality of the food is what has led to fewer numbers of students purchasing lunches. "The numbers have dropped," she says. "Kids don’t like it."
The school has had success with its "Titan Time" program, which offers mid-morning snacks to students and is not federally regulated. Some of the snacks are healthy, Niemi says, while others such as donuts are not.
Nelson says the district hopes to have an individual or company on board in the next two weeks, to provide food service for the remainder of the school year. "That would be ample time for someone to see if it would be a good program for them," he says. The school is currently advertising for the position in this newspaper.
If that doesn’t happen, Niemi says, the school population might be "brown bagging" for the rest of the year.