2018-09-15 / Front Page

Privatizing school cafeterias: students, schools, taxpayers win

By Bob Hooftallen
Executive Editor


Not always fans of cafeteria foods, these eighth and ninth graders, clockwise from left, Cameron Rees, Keaton Shupe, Steve Clingan and Hunter Bundy, give the new school menus a big thumbs up. Jacob Hooftallen Photo Not always fans of cafeteria foods, these eighth and ninth graders, clockwise from left, Cameron Rees, Keaton Shupe, Steve Clingan and Hunter Bundy, give the new school menus a big thumbs up. Jacob Hooftallen Photo Win-win situations are often pursued, but rarely obtained.

But with each passing day, a decision made by Austin Area School District’s board of directors to hire an outside agency to feed its students seems to be benefiting all involved, including taxpayers.

Austin Area School District (ASD) is one of many across the state to have made the switch to privatizing their cafeteria operations. Their goal: stop the financial bleeding. Board members contracted with The Nutrition Group (TNG), a K-12 food service management company based in Irwin, Pa., before the new school year.

The company has been providing cafeteria services since August.

“The (district’s) goal is to make the students and parents happy by providing healthy selections in proper proportions and at the same time get the cafeteria out of the red,” ASD Business Manager Pam Terrette explained. “The cafeteria had been losing money for as many years as I can look back and those losses have to come out of the general fund.”

In other words, taxpayers absorb the losses. Average loss for the cafeteria over the past decade has been $15,000-$20,000, which in a budget of roughly $5 million dollars isn’t really a massive leak. But, it’s enough to keep the service when provided by the district at a constant standstill, where it can neither afford to update equipment, nor put more money into expanding its services and menu options.

School districts are not legally authorized to “profit” from cafeteria operations, but the district can use any surplus to upgrade its kitchen equipment and other dining facilities.

TNG is in a unique position to provide school food service and still make a profit, in that the firm is an expert in the field, which enables it to find state and federal funds to subsidize costs.

Additionally, TNG’s size enables the company to buy food products in bulk, thus lowering the per-item prices.

Under the contract, ASD manages the financial flow of money from student accounts. That money, along with state and federal subsidies, is used to pay TNG’s invoices.

School lunch prices are controlled by the state and can only increase by a maximum of 10 cents per year. So, TNG cannot just increase prices in an effort to profit.

“The main goal is to increase participation,” Terrette said, noting that the responsibility to do so lies squarely on TNG’s shoulders.

Superintendent Kim Rees told Endeavor News that in gauging the students’ reaction to the new menus, she is pleasantly surprised.

“The students have been very positive,” she said. “They really like the options and there are definitely more students now who are eating food prepared here, rather than carrying their lunches to school.”

TNG has been an excellent partner in providing the cafeteria experience, Rees continued.

“They are very focused on customer satisfaction,” she explained. “One of the women from The Nutrition Group sat with the students today in the cafeteria to ask them about the kinds of food they’d like to see on the menu.”

TNG has been community-friendly as well, hiring all local people to perform cafeteria duties.

“We’re thrilled to be a part of (ASD),” TNG managing director Jessica Anzelone said. “We are transforming your cafeteria experience by focusing on fresh, nutritious, innovative recipes and menu concepts. Old-school lunch doesn’t work anymore; we are committed to continually reinventing school meals. We prepare nearly half a million meals a day for a variety of audiences, and we’re bringing that expertise to Austin.”

In addition to onsite services, TNG also has an interactive website for families to follow. A computer “app” is also being developed to keep customers informed.

Both Coudersport and Cameron County school districts considered this option earlier this year, but both opted out.

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