After starting the year with a $3.5 million budget deficit in food services, the New Haven Board of Education is on track to end the year with a balanced Food Service account, Chief Operating Officer Will Clark announced at the School Board meeting last week.

With 46 cafeterias across the district, NHPS is responsible for serving a healthy breakfast and lunch to over 21,000 students each day. Over seventy percent of these students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and the federal government reimburses the district for meals provided to such students. Though the district gets some money from the government, balancing the food service account is challenging. Last year, the combination of high costs and reduced revenues in food service accounted for roughly 50 percent of the city’s entire education budget deficit. Clark and Food Services Director Gail Sharry have aimed to close the deficit this year by cutting expenses by five percent and by increasing revenue by 3 percent. Clark said he is confident that through these efforts the district will end the year with a balanced food service budget.

“We are trending ahead of both of those goals,” Clark said. “But we still have six months left, so we need to make sure we are continuing our efforts with fidelity.”

Clark said there were problems with balancing the food service budget even before last year and that the district invested in a point of sale system in 2009 to make the program more efficient. This technology system tracks inventory, reimbursements and the number of meals students eat each day to make sure the program is cost effective. He added that the Board recently negotiated a new union contract settlement that will help ensure that the amount of labor in food services matches the production needs.

Both Clark and Sharry said another challenge in food services is providing healthy meals at a low-cost.

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which included new nutrition standards for meals served to students. These standards went into effect in 2012 and required schools receiving federal aid must serve students healthier meals that include whole grains, fruits and raw or cooked vegetables. The regulations also specify a minimum and maximum number of calories according to grade level, and they involve a gradual decrease in the salt content of foods by the 2022-’23 school year.

Meeting these stringent regulations raises expenses because healthy foods, such as fresh produce and whole grains, are typically more costly than other options, Sharry said. She added that the biggest challenge of her job is trying to find healthy and affordable foods that kids will like.

“I’m trying to put things out that the kids will at least try,” she said. “What I’ve learned is you have to try to get the kids to eat it three times before you decide if they like it or don’t like it.”

Sharry was appointed the new food service director last year and makes the breakfast and lunch menus for the entire district. She said that she creates the menus after getting the food from multiple vendors–including three bread companies and two produce companies.

Margaret Mead, research associate at the Yale Rudd Center, said districts across the country struggle to feed children healthy meals in a low budget and that NHPS has been relatively successful at providing healthy meals.

“For many kids, this is the only healthy meal that they have the opportunity to eat,” she said. “Figuring out a menu to serve as many kids as they do everyday all school year long is a tough job.”

NHPS produces and serves over 17,000 meals per day.