Chicken patties and a healthy budget: Updates from the schools’ food department
Food Service Director Michael Russo delivered a positive report to the School Committee on March 3, sharing a budget update and the latest in food fads among students.
And every student has the opportunity to try the best the cafeterias have to offer because all Wareham students can eat both breakfast and lunch for free, regardless of income.
That’s thanks to a federal program that allows free meals for all students in high-poverty districts. Students in Wareham have been given free meals since 2014, and the program will last through at least 2025, when the district will reapply.
“We are getting reimbursed at a significantly higher rate for breakfast and lunch this year,” Russo said, due to a federal act. That adds up to $1.50 more per day for a child who eats both breakfast and lunch at school than the pre-pandemic reimbursement level.
Because of the higher reimbursement, the program has made a slight surplus — about $54,000 since July 2021.
Russo said that the rate of participation this year — the first year students have been back in school full time since the beginning of the pandemic — has been slightly lower than in the past. That means that he’s working to increase participation next year so the program can break even when reimbursements will go back to normal rates.
Typically, there are months where the program can run at a loss due to lower participation or unexpected costs like equipment repairs, Russo explained.
The department has some funds in reserve, due largely to grants received throughout the pandemic. Because some of those grants covered costs that would typically have come out of the regular budget, Russo said he was able to keep some of that in savings.
“We had such a high level of need in our district that we were in the top 20 [districts in the state by] meals that were served in 2020,” Russo said. Because of that high level of participation, the town received plenty of grants and state funds during the pandemic.
Geoff Swett, a School Committee member, suggested that Russo could use those reserved funds to cover the cost of replacing equipment when necessary. Russo said he’s ordered several new pieces of equipment — a steam generator for kitchen equipment at the high school and new carts — and in January, the department replaced an ice machine at the high school.
Committee member Apryl Rossi asked how Russo was planning his budget amid rising food prices.
He explained that while the district has contracts with suppliers, those suppliers are allowed to pass increased costs to the customer. However, Russo said, the current higher rate of reimbursement from the federal government has covered the increased costs of food.
“What we experienced is our participation levels from the beginning of the school year were significantly lower than pre-covid,” Russo said. “However, month over month over month, we’ve been steadily increasing and improving participation levels at all our schools.”
Breakfast participation is strong across schools, Russo reported, except for at the high school, where bus schedules make it tough for kids to grab breakfast before class. According to the food service director, that’s an issue being worked on for next school year.
Lunch participation also needs work, Russo said.
According to Russo, students across the district are eating roughly 200 to 250 fewer lunches each day than before the pandemic. At the high school, lunch participation was at 70% in Dec. 2021, down from 84.7% that month in 2019. Lunch participation has increased slightly from 2019 among elementary schoolers, but is down from 74.2% to 70% at the middle school.
He offered several hypotheses for the lower participation: When students first returned to school, Russo said, parents might have been feeling nervous about school-made foods.
Russo added that the district has had difficulty ordering some specific items, and has had to make substitutions on the fly that aren’t always what students like best.
According to Russo, the food service team is working to develop menus that utilize what is available, even if that might mean substituting some more expensive items while they have the budget to do so.
Rossi theorized that some parents, now working from home, might have more time to pack lunches.
“What we want to do is overcome any student or parent concerns about the quality, the safety, or the taste of the food before the end of the school year,” Russo said.
He added that he hopes kids will end the school year with positive feelings about school meals that they’ll bring back with them in the fall.
Most student feedback, Russo said, is about favorite items students wish were served more often, or even every day.
Chicken patty sandwiches are very popular, and now that those are readily available, the district has stocked up, Russo said. And those sandwiches are available every day in the deli line, where students can order custom sandwiches.
At the middle school, the students particularly like one brand of pizza: Big Daddy’s Pizza.
“They like the flavor and the sauce-to-cheese ratio better,” Russo said, noting that it is now featured every Friday.
Also at the middle school, Russo reported that the cafeteria recently served brownies that were a wild hit. Participation went up significantly — so those will become a mainstay.
Russo said he wanted to thank all the cafeteria staff.
“It has been very challenging the last few years.. and our staff, not only do they deal with it, they’ve been very good at providing potential solutions,” Russo said. He said his staff always identifies problems and comes to him with potential solutions.
“During covid, having worked every day — we couldn’t have done better,” said Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver-Hood.