Pioneer eats away at school lunch deficit

  • Students at Pioneer Valley Regional School line up for lunch in October 2016.  Recorder File Photo/Paul Franz

  • Students at Pioneer Valley Regional School eat lunch in the cafeteria. The lunch program produced a positive balance of $394.82 between and months of August and December, to the satisfaction of the School Committee. Recorder File Photo/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Monday, January 29, 2018

NORTHFIELD — After years of watching its school lunch deficit sink more and more into the red, it’s beginning to look like the Pioneer Valley Regional School District is turning things around.

Assistant Superintendent Gail Healy, who is also the district’s food service director, has told the School Committee that the revised school lunch program is breaking even.

Between the months of August and December, Healy explained, the lunch program produced a positive balance of $394.82, to the satisfaction of the School Committee. The deficit, as of the end of December, is $247,130.48.

“It’s such a relief to see things heading in such a solidly correct direction,” School Committee member Sue O’Reilly-McRae said at a meeting Thursday.

The district has fewer expenses, having cut back on staff and shifting the roles of those who remained at the end of last school year.

Healy reported in June that Bernardston Elementary School’s cafeteria manager was laid off, and Northfield Elementary School’s assistant cafeteria manager retired. Neither position was refilled.

Additionally, one Pioneer helper, who assists with food preparation, serving and clean-up, instead splits her time between Northfield Elementary and Bernardston Elementary this year, working the same number of hours, Healy said. Pioneer’s two cashiers each work two hours per day instead of three. With the helper working at the elementary schools, Pioneer has five food service staff instead of six.

“Everyone’s working very hard,” Healy said of the new system. “They always worked very hard.”

Healy said all food service staff “are doing an incredible job at looking at things very carefully before they order,” and making the most of funding through the Department of Defense’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. Pioneer received $4,947 in U.S. Department of Agriculture dollars to buy fresh produce this school year.

When Healy proposed the reconfigured program in June, she anticipated it could save the district $46,248 in its first year. She said it’s difficult to assess whether that savings remains on track, though the school lunch deficit has plateaued.

“In essence, we saved it because we did not expend that money for personnel costs,” she said.

Given that the School Committee voted in October to reach out to the four member towns for help paying off the existing lunch deficit, the lunch program could soon have a clean slate. Bernardston, Northfield, Warwick and Leyden will be asked to allot money at their spring town meetings.

Restructuring could continue, Healy said. On Jan. 19, a state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education finance review officer came to the district for a National School Lunch Program review, which is conducted in each district once every three years. The officer will produce a corrective action plan with recommendations for the district.

An additional review came on Jan. 17, Healy added, by a food system consulting firm called Northbound Ventures. The review is offered to numerous Franklin County school districts through the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, Healy said, and the reviewers will produce a report with recommendations regarding how to improve efficiency in the different school lunch programs.

Reach Shelby Ashline at: sashline@recorder.com

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