School Lunches A Complex Break Even Business

SPOKANE — Nearly 70-percent of the elementary school kids in the Spokane School District eat school lunch, a multi-million dollar business that is becoming increasingly difficult to manage.

The Spokane School District serves 16,000 lunches a day, but these aren’t the lunches most adults may remember from their own school days.

The district has to follow state and federal nutritional guidelines that specify that each meal must include two ounces of protein, one to two ounces of bread and then 3/4 cup fruit and veggies and eight ounces of milk.

The guidelines, combined with the rising cost of food, makes serving school lunches a very complex, multi-million dollar task.

“We run a $12 Million business for kids,” Director of Nutritional Services Doug Wordell said. “We are break even service to the school district so all of our expenditures need to be covered by all the revenue we bring in.”

Seventy percent of the revenue comes from federal reimbursement but that funding is not keeping up with the increase in food costs.

“The federal reimbursement has only been going up by 2.9-percent a year well our expenses last year, we saw seven to eight inflation last year,” Wordell said.

“Our expenses are going much faster than our revenues and over a long period of time could outstrip them,” he added.

Even though is it is increasingly more expensive to buy food, especially healthy food, the school district still has to meet the federal nutritional guidelines which means less choices for the kids.

“There was only one apple out of over 25 varieties we normally look at, there was only one – the Gala – that we could afford to buy right now,” Wordell said.

It also means that in some cases the less healthy option has to be the choice.

“For example I wanted to try whole wheat buns but wheat buns are two and a half times the cost of a regular hamburger bun,” Wordell said.

The choices Wordell and his staff are making also have to take into account one more important factor: If the kids don’t eat it then the only thing getting fed is the garbage can.