By Zachary Matson
Daily Gazette Reporter
Guilderland’s food service director for more than 25 years, Linda Mossop, picked up a side gig in the fall: leading Niskayuna’s food service program out of the red.
After three years of increasingly large budget deficits in the food program’s budget — surpassing the $250,000 mark last year — Niskayuna Central School District called on Mossop to help move its program back into the federal lunch program, even as it trims costs and increases sales.
“My (Guilderland) superintendent called me in to ask if I was willing to help Niskayuna,” said Mossop, who plans to retire in the spring. “They didn’t have an acting director at the time, and I could play that role.”
Under Mossop’s guidance, Niskayuna rejoined the federal program last month. She reworked menus to meet federal standards and is implementing other changes to put the program on track to sustaining itself in future years, though she acknowledged it is likely to lose money again this school year.
“I don’t think we will make up all of the money that has been lost in the program, to be honest,” Mossop told the school board during a presentation earlier this month. “I think it will take until next year.”
Mossop, who has led Guilderland’s food program for 26 years, has split time this year between Guilderland and Niskayuna. In her first weeks in Niskayuna schools, she standardized ordering across the district’s different schools and developed new menus to meet federal requirements. Mossop plans to stay with the district until June, and the district will post a food service director opening next month with the goal of hiring someone by May.
Since the district hasn’t participated in the program for the past few years, it has been providing free meals to qualified students without receiving the federal reimbursement for those meals. The district’s elementary and middle schools in November served more than 2,900 meals to students eligible for free federal lunches without getting a penny in return.
Last school year, the district estimated it missed around $170,000 in federal reimbursements by not participating in the program.
“When we’re not in the program, we don’t get paid for any of the meals,” said Carrie Nyc-Chevrier, the district’s business director.
The high school, which in November served more than 1,300 free lunches, did not rejoin the federal program. At the same time, the district’s percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches has been climbing in recent years — ticking up from 6 percent in 2009 to 12 percent this year.
The food program’s operating losses have grown in each of the past three years, rising from just over $116,000 in the 2014-15 school year to more than $250,000 last year. School board members have focused more attention on the money-losing program, allocating $100,000 from the general fund this year to cover losses. But the goal of any district food program is to be self-funding.
“Ideally, we would like to not have that going forward,” Nyc-Chevrier said of the general fund transfer.
Just moving back into the federal program won’t be enough, Mossop said. The district is also looking to increase options for students and find menu options that increase student purchases. They are also trying to cut the per-unit cost of meals by standardizing purchases and taking advantage of bulk commodity prices available to districts participating in the federal lunch program.
Before standardizing purchasing forms, individual schools were using different products, Mossop told the school board. Some schools offered individually-packaged pancakes at breakfast instead of the cheaper and larger-scale options, for instance.
Since the district’s pizza provider doesn’t meet the federal requirements, the school board last week voted to terminate that contract and put out a new bid under the new menu standards.
The district’s kitchen equipment is also holding it back. The high school, for example, doesn’t have a functioning dishwasher, leaving staff to wash the dishes for hundreds of meals by hand every day. Food warmers, microwaves and the high school’s refrigerator unit are all in need of repair or replacement, Mossop added.
Nyc-Chevrier said the district plans to tackle some of the equipment needs immediately — like replacing microwaves and the repairing and serving unit — while planning to replace more big-ticket items down the road.
“It will be a long-term fix to get all of the equipment to where we need,” Nyc-Chevrier said. “It’s a Catch-22: you need the equipment, but you don’t have the money to get the equipment, but you the need the equipment to make money.”
Improving student participation is another goal. Switching out the rolls for breakfast sandwiches at the high school has spurred more students to purchase the school’s breakfast offerings.
“It’s not a more cost-effective roll, but they are buying it a lot more,” Mossop said.
Ultimately, getting more students to buy more meals in district cafeterias is the keystone to building a self-sustaining program. Recent menu changes have brought a daily taco bar to the district’s middle schools.
“Tacos are the big thing now,” said Kathy Bennice, head cook at Van Antwerp Middle School. The kids are also enjoying the new whole-wheat stuffed-crust pizzas, she said.
Bennice said she has seen an increase of about 60 or 70 more kids purchasing lunches since new menus rolled out after the holidays.
“I’ve seen that in just one month, so I hope that as the meals go on, we will see more,” Bennice said. “You have to get them to try it.”