RANCHESTER — Sheridan County School District 1 administrators have ditched the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school lunch program in favor of a more homegrown variety — at least at its middle and high schools.
The federal program places strict nutritional restrictions on what the schools can serve under the program, including the number of calories ranges based on age groups.
For example, for kids in grade sixth through eight, the restrictions limit lunch to 600-700 calories each day on average over the course of the week. For high school students, the allowable range is 750-850 calories.
Schools throughout the country were getting around this rule by selling a la carte items to go along with the standard meals made available to students under the federal rules. But this year, the USDA will include those items in the nutritional requirements.
SCSD1 Business Manager Jeremy Smith said the extension of the rules just won’t work for the local school district.
“The kids simply weren’t getting enough calories to not be hungry by mid-afternoon,” Smith said. “Let alone to immediately after school go to practice.”
Smith noted that SCSD1 children have longer school days since they are on a four-day schedule. Kids are typically in school from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The school district has opted to drop the federal program at the junior high and high schools, meaning the loss of about $40,000 in funding each year. But, Smith is confident that an increased participation rate that could result from more food options will offset that funding loss.
“It really made what we can do a lot more flexible,” Smith said. “So we started looking at what we would want to offer and what we can do. We decided we wanted to increase the quality of the food.”
Administrators at the school had been looking at ways to partner with local producers for years, but were unsure of how to make it work in a climate where fruits and vegetables only grow for a few months out of the year.
After attending a conference at which an administrator from Vermont talked about how they made it happen, Smith said SCSD1 officials were re-energized to keep trying. School officials started calling local ranches and exploring options.
Smith and SCSD1 Food Service Director Dennis Decker toured the facilities at Holliday Family Farms and were contacted by Masters Ranch.
Decker said the district spent $9,853 on produce last year. Of that amount, roughly $2,963 was on the products the district will now purchase from Holliday Farms. Decker estimated spending $9,039 on the same amount of produce from Holliday Family Farms, for a cost increase of $6,076.
For the beef, Decker said the district will likely spend $5,158 more by utilizing Masters Ranch.
Decker noted though, that the numbers don’t account for the products the district will be able to sell students at a better, premium entree price.
This fall, SCSD1 will begin purchasing cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, radishes and other items from the farm located just outside of Dayton. In November, the district will purchase six cows from Masters Ranch and will have the beef processed in Miles City to be used at the SCSD1 schools. Smith noted that buying whole cows has presented its own challenges, as the school district must follow strict guidelines on what kind of processing facilities can be used.
“We’re hoping to encourage somebody closer to home to do the processing, but the inspections required, from what I’ve been told, are pretty onerous,” Smith said.
He also noted that Decker has started working with Holliday Family Farms to discuss what else the local producer could grow for the district in the future.
Smith said school district officials are excited to serve some of the dishes they haven’t been able to under the federal guidelines — lasagna, macaroni and cheese, country fried steak and other items.
“These are meals that are still healthy, but they offer the calories that our students need so they aren’t hungry,” Smith said.
Students will now have three entree choices available for lunch — the daily special, premium entrees and pre-packaged salads. In addition a full salad bar will be offered to students.
Smith said those students eligible for free and reduced lunches will still be able to participate in those programs.
While Smith said the cost of locally grown produce may be slightly more expensive, the bottom line for the school will not suffer. He said the district expects a 15 percent increase in sales, but only a 7 percent increase in costs.
After sending out a letter to district parents last week, Smith said the district has received nothing but positive feedback. In fact, Smith said, elementary school parents have asked when the program can be extended to the other schools in the district.
Smith said that the district will certainly work toward that goal, but right now there are too many younger children on free and reduced lunches for the district to cover the cost of those meals without federal funding.
“This is a big leap of faith for us,” Smith said of the district’s decision to ditch the federal program. “But it seems like the right choice for our kids.”