The Price of Protest

In this month’s It’s Your Business, it certainly is your business when schools close for any reason—and September’s article, titled “Walking Out on School Nutrition?” and written by Senior Editor Beth Roessner, is about the full scope of the teacher protests during SY 2017-18 (as well as the potential of future protests) and the included logistical issues, such as how to feed hungry students. What that article does not cover is cost to your department, which is why we have rounded up those extra thoughts from directors here in this Bonus Web Content.

When school districts in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Oklahoma, North Carolina and West Virginia closed for teacher-led protests in SY 2017-18, it left school nutrition departments scrambling: With many districts and often entire states closed, how could departments continue to feed hungry students?

Many logistical issues concerning programs and sites, menus, inventory and staffing surfaced, leaving departments with few resources of how to handle the situations. Although it was difficult, many districts aimed to feed their communities for the duration of their state’s walkouts.

Many affected districts across the country, chose to operate emergency summer feeding programs. This enabled districts to open feeding sites at community centers like libraries and playgrounds, and feed children free breakfast and/or lunch.

Despite the success of impromptu feeding sites, there was one lingering problem all districts in all affected states felt: revenue loss. 

Ranging from one to 10 days, the teacher protests made a significant impact on the financial bottom lines of school nutrition departments, and although the walkouts are now behind them, many directors aren’t sure of the long-term financial impact.

School Nutrition spoke to directors from several of the affected states to learn about how the protests impacted their financial bottom lines.

West Virginia

The Mountain State was the first state impacted by walkouts. Teachers grew angry with low pay and the costs of health care. Starting on February 22, 2018, the protest lasted through March 7.

During the protests, it was community donations and a contribution from The Child Nutrition Department of West Virginia helped put Deb Derico’s mind at ease after the teacher walkouts in her district. The CND of West Virginia provided each of the state’s 55 counties with $1,000 to aid with this financial burden. This support, along with preexisting grant money, helped ease the fiscal blow and pay for supplies during the walkouts, recounts Derico.

“We did the best that we could,” says Derico, Child Nutrition director at Marshall County Schools. “But there was an impact on some product waste that we had. But, what can you do?”

Often, affected districts ran emergency summer feeding programs, through the USDA. Instead, Derico relied on the food backpack program. It was volunteers who stuffed backpacks, and that left few labor costs. There was some food loss, primarily in milk and fresh produce. But she doesn’t have a number for how the walkouts affected her district.

“I don’t know if there is a tangible number for it,” explains Derico. “Bottom line was that employees were fighting for a good cause and our students did not need to feel that. We’re always concerned about budgets, but the main concern was that our kids got fed and didn’t go hungry.”

Oklahoma

During the 10-day protest in Oklahoma, the largest district in the state, Oklahoma City Public Schools, took a huge financial punch. The district fed in total, 21,403 meals over the two weeks. Although they were reimbursed just over $67,000 for the meals served during the walkouts, payroll costs mounted to over $580,000. With all costs combined, they lost $1.1 million.

“I don’t want to talk about the negative impact, because there were negative impacts, especially financially,” says Director Kevin Ponce. “But the main thing was we got the word out to feed kids. That was the main purpose: To have food in a food-insecure area.”

Despite the significant losses faced by the OKCPS district, the employees were proud of their work, both in feeding kids at select locations and at the state capital.

“It built a deep sense of pride within the staff of the district and it reiterated the deep sense of pride within community members who may or may not have a child,” says Shonia Hall, SNS, Manager of Training & Compliance at OKCPS. “I think they were very proud of how the district they support were working to take care of their own.”

North Carolina

The school nutrition department in Iredell Statesville (N.C.) Schools lost about $41,000 on May 16. The protests in North Carolina were short but that one day made a significant impact, says School Nutrition Director Tina Wilson.

As her district does not have a summer feeding, they sought permission from North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction to ensure they could get reimbursed for the meals they served while schools were out. Seven feeding sites were opened and manned by three employees. And, her department had to prepare meals for testing sites, field trips and an afterschool program that were still set to run.

Although the district is composed of 32 schools and about 20,000 students, Wilson only claimed 56 breakfasts, 110 lunches and 83 after school snacks during the one-day walkouts.

“We lost a lot that day,” explains Wilson. What compounded the loss was paying employee salaries without the additional revenue. “It’s just one of these situations we have no control over.”

Wilson was also significantly worried about what this would do to her hourly employees. They were stuck in the crosshairs. Staff were able to work during the one-day walkout and clean the kitchens. Of Wilson’s 200 staff, about 50 came to participate.

“I still had to pay employee salaries, and not get the revenue,” she explains.

Arizona

With an enrollment of about 9,000 students at Yuma(Arizona) Elementary School District, Child Nutrition Director Lisa Thrower and her team fed about 1,500 students for breakfast and upwards of 4,500 students for lunch, during the Arizona walkouts that happened in late April. Thrower wasn’t too concerned with the food costs, but labor costs amounted to more than reimbursement, she says.

Thrower could claim the meals via an emergency summer feeding program, but reimbursement was delayed for several months. Altogether, her district lost about $120,000, but Thrower hopes to make up that money through the summer feeding program.

“Behind the scenes, here I am shaking in my boots that we were losing so much money a day. But at the same time, you have to have a heart and think to yourself, ‘Some of these kids don’t eat otherwise unless they eat at school.’”

Patti Bilbrey, director of Nutrition Services at Scottsdale Unified School District calls the stress felt by staff and the losses to financial bottom lines as “collateral damage.”

“Our rough estimate during those six days was about a loss of $125,000,” exclaims Bilbrey. “That’s rough.”

Because Bilbrey’s district has lower participation in free- and reduced-priced meal programs, federal reimbursement is lower. Bilbrey did not anticipate a high number of student participants, based upon engagement in previous feeding programs. Altogether, the district served just over 1,220 meals.

“Every penny counts,” recounts Bilbrey. “We don’t have as much federal dollars running through our program. We had to make some other changes to ensure we’re still viable and good.”

In addition to the financial loss, her staff felt the walkouts hard, she explains. During the six days of protests, staff had to take days off in the middle of a month. Bilbrey was convinced she was going to lose staff—and that they would not return. And, they had two employees who attended new-hire orientation the day before the walkouts occurred. Thankfully, she adds, all employees returned.

“You can’t publicly say, ‘Well, you don’t know what it did to our department,” she explains. She didn’t want to lament about the negative impact the walkouts had on her department. She and her team just focused on feeding the kids. “We did what we had to do to support the entire education community because we are part of that community.”

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