Nutrition news

SUSD juggles between nutrition and rising food prices | City News

Millions of grocery shoppers across the country are feeling the pinch of inflation, as are school districts across the valley, including Scottsdale.

“Inflation is real,” said Patti Bilbery, director of Scottsdale Unified Nutrition. “Most people can relate it to going to the grocery store and they’ve probably seen their door-to-door grocery costs be almost double what you were paying before.

“We’re going through the same thing, but in school meals, we can’t just double the price of a school meal. Our mission is to give children healthy and inexpensive meals.

Last year the cost of a meal was $4. Bilbery didn’t yet have a figure on how much it would cost to cook a meal this year, as the new year is only a few days old.

But she predicts it will be well over $4.

“I expect our costs to increase further,” she said. “We have manufacturers who have already told me that prices are going to go up throughout the year,” Bilbery said.

For example, milk cost the district 20 cents per cartoon last year, but this year it’s 27 cents per carton.

“That might only be 7 cents, but when that points to the percentage increase that we’re seeing across all food products, that’s an overwhelming increase,” Bilbery said.

The district charges $2.85 per meal for elementary school and $3.10 per meal for middle and high school. Middle and high school students get larger portions and need more protein, per United States Department of Agriculture requirements.

Much of the increased cost of preparing a meal comes from the cost of food,” Bilbery said.

At the start of last year, the district typically spent $1.10 on food per meal. By the end of the year, he was spending about $2 per meal for the food portion, not including wrappers and other inedible items.

The difference between what the district charges and what it spends on food goes towards overhead costs, such as labor, supply costs, and miscellaneous expenses such as facility repairs.

Bilbery can’t change the nutritional values ​​that meals must contain, but she has several levers at her disposal to make ends meet.

The first is to reduce the quality. The district has generally served food with no additives or preservatives, but that costs extra money. Thus, the district was forced to choose lower quality foods.

“It could still be a (nutritionally) compliant food, but not a higher quality compliant food,” Bilbery said. “We had to decrease the quality of the food a bit, well not a bit, a lot because we are always running out of food left and right.”

The second lever is to raise prices, but she must be careful not to exclude families from the market.

“We have a tipping point for parents that if you go to…$3.50 or $4 (per meal) but if (parents) have three kids, it’s $12 a day and a lot of families can’t just not afford it,” Bilbery said.

Ultimately, she does not intend to make ends meet this year.

She said she won’t raise prices, but as the variables start to lock in as the year progresses, that will be a good indicator of what costs will look like over the next five years.

“I have this healthy fund balance and I know families are struggling,” Bilbery said. “I don’t want to reduce that balance to a critical level, but I know I can support this year at what our prices are as families still struggle in this tough economy.”

SUSD school board member Jann-Michael Greenburg hopes there will be no price increase.

“My personal preference would be for universal free meals, but nutrition services are a separate business operation from the budget we receive from the government,” he said.

“If in order to stay afloat and continue to maintain the employees that they have and continue to serve our children, they have to increase the prices of meals and other food products, then I should support that because the alternative is that we cannot not afford the employees we have, we cannot afford to feed our children at all and that would be even worse.

Bilbery cannot count on the school board to bail it out with additional funds from the district’s maintenance and operations (M&O) budget.

The nutrition service department is fully funded by what it does with meals and does not take anything from the M&O budget.

In fact, it typically pays around $1 million a year in indirect fees.

But if it increases prices along the way, it cannot increase them unilaterally. It must obtain the authorization of the board of directors.

“I should show why I’m raising prices,” she said.

SUSD School Board President Julie Cieniawski said, “Nutrition is such an important aspect of a child’s health and well-being that we should keep these services as affordable as possible.

“Providing catering services to our students and their families is one of the many advantages that sets us apart from for-profit charters and the private school industry. Federal government intervention and the provision of free meals to our communities over the past year and more have been a valuable support service.

Keeping fees as affordable as possible will continue to be a primary interest to uphold.

The thing is, she doesn’t know if she will have to raise prices in the future or by how much.

The federal government has been paying for meals for every student for two years as part of the COVID-19 relief plan. But it’s over and Bilbery just got what the feds will reimburse the district for meals – $4.41 for a free meal and $4.01 for reduced meals.

The federal government also pays the district 85 cents per meal paid for.

“What, two weeks before school and we find out what we’re going to do per meal?” said Billery. “It’s hard to plan when you don’t even know what you’re going to do per meal. And we had to make those plans, actually a lot of our plans were made in March and April of last year. So it was a challenge.

She doesn’t know if the federal reimbursement rate will stay in place.

“There’s no real clear trend going forward on what we’re seeing,” Bilbery said. “A lot of our food cost increases could be temporary if labor shortages in the United States are taken care of, if fuel prices go down.”

Likewise, she thinks there are a significant number of children who should be on the free or reduced meal plan, but aren’t because the federal government hasn’t yet updated the guidelines on income eligibility.

Before COVID, only about 24% of students in the district were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

That’s important because federal government reimbursements for free and reduced meals help subsidize the cost of meals for paying children, Bilbery said.

That’s why different school districts charge different amounts for their meals. A district with a high percentage of children receiving free or reduced meals can afford to charge paying children less because the district receives more money from the federal government.

Making the situation murkier is all the legislation being considered in Congress, Bilbery said.

“There are a lot of laws floating around,” Bilbery said. “There are so many bills floating around. This will have a dramatic impact on us. If they change the refund rate, I may never have to raise the prices.