Lunch prices rise in Williston schools (12/23/09)

Dec. 23, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Students returning from the holiday break will notice a difference in the school district’s cafeterias. The price of breakfast and lunch will increase by 50 cents beginning Jan. 4.

The rise in costs comes as the budget deficit for the district’s food service program shows no signs of declining. Food Service Director Scott Wagner said while more students are dining with the hot lunch program, labor and food costs continue to climb.

“We probably should have raised the prices at the beginning of the school year,” Wagner said.

A lunch will now cost $3 for students and $4 for teachers. Breakfasts will increase to $1.75. Students on free or reduced lunch programs will see no change.

Wagner said that while the cost increase could be problematic for some families, the lunch prices are still a good deal for what is offered. Since Wagner was hired last school year, the menu changes daily with more choices, many of which are healthy options.

“We’ve responded to a lot of prior years’ complaints and customer requests,” Wagner said. “I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from people.”

But the program’s deficit remains high. According to Bob Mason, Chittenden South Supervisory Union’s chief operations officer, this school year’s projected deficit will run nearly $103,000. The Williston School Board has already pledged to put $25,000 toward curbing the deficit and may decide to use money from the school’s general fund to offset the remaining $77,000.

Deficits have been an annual problem for Williston’s food service program. Last school year, the deficit ran to nearly $119,000 before School Board support, Mason said.

With the 50-cent increase, Mason estimates the school will generate $35,000. It’s not enough to erase the deficit, but it will help, he said.

At a recent School Board meeting, District Principal Walter Nardelli explained the reasoning behind the increase. He said the district does not want to sacrifice quality by reducing lunch options to save money.

“We’re trying to put out very healthy meals with choices,” Nardelli said. “We’ve come so far from where we were before that we don’t want that to change.”

Nardelli added that replacements of out-of-date equipment also contributed to the deficit.

But while the School Board may need to use money from the general fund to offset the food service program deficit again this year, participation rates among students continue to climb. Wagner said November had a 50 percent participation rate among students. That means half the student body bought hot lunch last month on a regular basis.

Looking at preliminary numbers, Wagner believes December will have even higher participation numbers. He said that would make December the food service program’s most successful month in years in terms of participation rates.

At the beginning of this school year, the food service program rolled out a number of changes, including giving itself a new name the Wildcat Café. The program developed a new logo, which it has printed on a series of T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts.

Wagner said he just received the first shipment of Williston basketball shirts and sweatshirts with the Wildcat logo. Instead of saying “Wildcat Café,” the print says “Wildcat Basketball.” He hopes to sell the shirts at sporting events this winter, with profits helping to offset the deficit.