Ohio Districts Struggling to Balance Food, Cafeteria Budgets

Columbus City Schools, like many districts across the country, continues to have problems coming up with a way to make their food service operations self-sufficient. Last year the district recorded a $1.75 million deficit in its meal budget, which made it the largest in the country in terms of dollars. But Columbus has competition within the state — according to Collin Binkley and Bill Bush of the Columbus Dispatch, when considering the number of students enrolled in district schools, food programs in at least four other districts on Ohio are running even bigger deficits.

In proportion to its budget, Bexley has the largest deficit in the state, amounting to $180,000 or 31% of its total food budget last year. The money is made up from the district's general fund. If Columbus had a similar shortfall, its food program would need to be subsidized to the tune of more than $8 million.

The shortfalls continue even though schools in Bexley – as well as in Grandview Heights, which is having its own food budget woes – charge a dollar more per meal than schools in Columbus do. Upper Arlington, the district with the third-largest budget gap doesn't sell meals to students, offering its options a la carte only.

"There's a lot of love going on," Betsy Homan said.

The school focuses on individualized instruction in small group settings — total enrollment in its day program is capped at 30 students — with a focus on learning through discovery and play, she said.

A teacher with certifications in elementary education and special education, Betsy Homan spent the past 12 years working in private and public schools, most recently in Lafayette Parish. She'll serve as the students' primary academic teacher.

Jason Homan, a musician and music teacher, and Sheila Courville, a teaching assistant, fill out the full-time staff — while certified specialists and other teachers will help the staff with lessons throughout the week.
Some lessons will also be taught by guests.

Ohio districts are hardly the only ones in the country struggling to balance the books when it comes to student meals, especially lately. The average cost of lunch has gone up with the introduction of the new USDA healthy lunch standards championed by the First Lady Michelle Obama.

Not only are schools paying more to provide these healthy meals, which are supposed to aid in the battle against childhood obesity, they're also distinctly less popular among students. As a result, some schools have had to turn to some very unhealthy options – like candy and soda in vending machines – in order to make ends meet.

According to Mary Beth Pfeiffer of the Poughkeepsie Journal, this approach might seem entirely against the spirit of the new lunch regulations, but the school – and the district – don't have much of a choice. With fewer items on the menu that students might eat, the schools are selling fewer lunches. The money to pay for the difference has to come from somewhere.

And it's hard to argue that selling junk is not lucrative. According to Maria McCarthy, the district's food service director, between vending machines and food carts, the district brought in close to $250,000 in the last year alone.

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