SHERIDAN — Most of the schools in Sheridan County School District 1 are beginning their fourth year off of the National School Lunch Program.
According to district business manager Jeremy Smith, the switch is going well, but it’s difficult to buy the quantities of local produce the district needs.
“It’s one thing to have the farmers markets in August,” Smith said. “I need them in November.”
Tongue River Elementary remains on the national program, while the other five schools in the district buy local and regional food.
Smith said the district has found more success lately buying local beef and pork products than produce. There is a new meat processor in Buffalo, so the district bought five steers and three hogs from the buy-back program at the Sheridan County Fair to be processed there. The closest meat processor was previously in Miles City, Montana, too far away for reasonable transport costs.
Food services director Dennis Decker said the district buys most of its produce from Food Services of America, a little from Sysco, and beverages from Pepsi.
The district has three school lunch menus: one for Tongue River Elementary, one for Big Horn Elementary and one for the four secondary schools. The secondary menu options are a daily lunch special, a premium entree, a salad bar, a pre-packaged salad and a pre-packaged sandwich. Students who would qualify for free or reduced lunches under the federal program still qualify for a free or reduced daily lunch special.
Smith said the school lunch program typically runs a deficit that is covered by the district’s general fund.
In the 2013-14 school year, the lunch program had a deficit of about $153,000 (not including federal subsidies) and received $109,142.93 in federal subsidies.
In the 2014-15 school year, the deficit was about $202,000, with $64,651.57 in federal subsidies.
For the 2015-16 school year, the deficit was around $152,000 and federal subsidies were $49,711.52.
Last year, for the 2016-17 school year, there was a deficit of about $171,000 and the district received $45,805.58 in federal subsidies.
“We’re really pleased with the outcome, both from a financial perspective, that we’ve maintained our cost structure,” Smith said. “The second thing is, when we do our surveys and we do our focus groups for our students and parents, we get really positive reviews.”
“At first, the reaction was incredible,” Decker said. “We spent our last year on the (federal) program when they really stitched it down, and the kids were just — we couldn’t feed them what they wanted, they were still hungry … They didn’t have any choices.”
Decker said the hot lunch participation rate initially went up about 15 percent at schools with local food, to about 75 percent total. That rate has plateaued, he said, but is still doing well.
Along with the challenge of finding a sufficient amount of local produce, Smith said another issue is students buying more food on their account than their parents expected.
Decker also said the limitations at Tongue River Elementary can be frustrating.
“I sent a complaint to the USDA and their response is, ‘The food is wholesome,’” he said. “That doesn’t mean it tastes good.”
Going forward, Decker said he is developing a new catering program that will deliver packed salads and sandwiches. He said it is geared toward staff.
“If I worked at an elementary school, I wouldn’t want to eat little kid food,” he said.
He believes it will be a win-win.
“The revenue we sell to ourselves, essentially, lessens the burdens of my program on the general fund,” Decker said. “Instead of running down to McDonald’s, they’re putting money back into the system and getting a good lunch.”
The district has a central kitchen in Big Horn High School, but Decker said he wants the meals in all school kitchens to be of equal caliber.
“If (Superintendent Marty) Kobza were to come to any one of our cafes, I would like him to see the same quality in product at every one of them,” he said. “I think our food quality compares with any restaurant in town.”
Decker said most people are used to the current food, which is a net positive.
“If (students) don’t have to worry about what kind of stuff they’re going to get for lunch, they’re going to be satisfied,” he said. “That contributes to how well they learn, I hope.”