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More on Creative School Calendars

In the August 2012 issue of School Nutrition, Penny McLaren examined changes that a number of districts have made to their school year calendars in “Calendar Daze.” Whether these changes were made for academic or financial reasons or a combination of both, such updates have an impact on school nutrition operations, which must evaluate all of their resources with a fresh lens to make the puzzle of serving school meals on a revised calendar work. In addition to the models presented in the print issue, let’s take a look at two approaches applied in Montana and Ohio.

Longer Lunch
In Bozeman (Mont.) Public Schools, a task force investigating the various implications of transitioning the district to a year-round school and other calendar reforms recently was asked to suspend its mission due to the search for a new superintendent and efforts needed to pass a local school bond measure. That’s probably okay with the school nutrition team, which only a year ago had to weather a scheduling change at the high school. The district changed from providing two lunch periods to a single 55-minute lunch period for all students. It was a move that Bob Burrows, support services supervisor for Bozeman Public Schools, calls “disastrous for foodservice.”

Burrows notes that considerable research was cited indicating that the longer 55-minute period would allow students a more leisurely lunch and that the students’ arrival at the cafeteria would be staggered so that they would not have to come rushing in to the cafeteria all at once. But “The data was not accurate,” he reports. “With that much time for lunch, kids leave in cars and on foot.” Since just 26% of the student population is eligible for free and reduced-price meals, the high school students use the longer lunch period to take advantage of Bozeman’s fast-food offerings. “They go to restaurants all over town,” laments Burrows.The change to the longer lunch coincided with the opening of a new, additional foodservice area at Bozeman’s high school. While the school kept the old café area, it and the new wing are separated across the school by about 1,000 feet. The existing café had been popular, and while Burrows concedes that both point-of-service areas still get traffic, he is convinced that together, they could have drawn more participation in the old schedule format.

“The 55-minute lunch hurt our participation,” says Burrows. “[In 2011-12, we] regained some of the business lost to the long lunch [period], but we are still way short of our participation goals that were set before this change took effect.” He doesn’t expect the district will go back to two shorter periods any time soon, though, he says, because the teachers are big fans of the longer break. “It is so well regarded by the teachers and administrators,” he reports, with some resignation.

Summer Solution
JoAnne Robinett, SNS, owner of the school nutrition consultancy America’s Meal and a retired Ohio school nutrition director, reflects back on a school calendar-related challenge she faced when she administered school meals in Xenia Community Schools. One school in her district was moving to a year-round schedule, so the building was to be open all summer. The sticking point? That particular school had no kitchen, so in order to serve lunch to students, she had to open and staff the kitchen at a second school, in addition to the serving area of the year-round school.“That was not going to be good for the bottom line,” she recounts. “How was I going to do it?” She determined it would cost about $100 per day more than it would have generated in revenue/reimbursement, mostly due to the labor costs required by maintaining staff at two separate locations.

Instead of despairing, Robinett devised a creative solution: She launched a summer feeding program that would support the community, as well as the year-round school. “All of a sudden, I reframed the problem,” she recalls. “A summer feeding program was a way to get it done, to underwrite the cost of providing foodservice in that one building, as the cooking kitchen would now be producing meals for the summer program and for the year-round school.”

Since she had no direct experience with the Summer Food Service Program, she contacted the state education department for advice, while also visiting nearby communities that had such programs up and running. “I saw that it did work,” she says. Ultimately, Robinett’s willingness to think outside of the box resulted in a great summer feeding program for Xenia, and she suggests that operations faced with a similar situation look for other service and program options that may be viable to help offset costs and increase efficiencies with any open kitchen.