By Gene Deason

Brownwood Bulletin

Complaints about school cafeteria food are legendary, and they’ve been around for generations. But the No. 1 complaint Brownwood school officials hear doesn’t pertain to the food itself, according to Michelle Helms, the district’s food service director.

It’s long lines.

“We do student surveys to find out what the students like and don’t like,” Helms told the board of trustees of the Brownwood Independent School District this month. “The No. 1 complaint is long lines, and every year, we are looking for ways to make the lines go faster.”

But that effort can be complicated by specialized service the school district’s food service personnel provides.

“If students have a special way they like their food, we do take the time to fix it just that way,” Helms said. “It’s a special customer service, but it does take longer.”

Helms said 19 percent of the elementary school students bring their lunches instead of buying them in the cafeteria, a figure she described as “very high participation.”

At the middle school and high school levels, 61 percent of the students purchase full meals, but many of the 39 percent of the students who don’t still buy at least a sandwich in the cafeteria, Helms said.

Those figures are not unusual compared to the statistics from other school districts, Helms added.

Faced with rising costs of food, the Brownwood school board approved a staff recommendation this month to increase lunch prices 20 cents at all campuses, bringing the price to $1.70 at elementary schools and $2 at middle and high schools.

The USDA sets the amount for reduced price lunches, which is currently 40 cents. Many students also qualify for free lunches as the result of household income.

“Right now, we’re in very good shape,” Helms said of the food service financial situation. “But we want to stay in very good shape.”

Superintendent Reece Blincoe described the food service as “a business within a business.”

“We can’t touch their money, but if they run short we have to bail them out,” Blincoe said. “We need to maintain a fund balance because if a freezer goes out, we have to do something, and I mean overnight.”

Helms said the food service has some options to economize in the face of food cost increases that in the past year have sent the cost of food for a sample pizza meal from 99 cents to $1.17, for a chicken-fried steak meal from $1.04 to $1.12, and for a burrito meal or hamburger meal from $1.19 to $1.31.

For example, Helms said, the Brownwood cafeterias serve twice the required amounts of fruits and vegetables in each serving, but she said she believes doing so boosts the nutrition levels of the meals.

The food service also encourages healthy diets by pricing its more nutritious foods more attractively, Helms said.

“Less healthy items are not priced so attractively,” she told the school board.

“I appreciate your working to balance economics and nutrition,” trustee John Nickols said.

Even with the higher lunch prices, the amount paid by students who are not on free or reduced price meal programs is less than the amount provided by the government, Helms said.

Last year, the government reimbursed the school district $2.57 for each qaulified free meal, and $2.17 for each reduced price meal, for which students pay 40 cents. The government pays 24 cents for each full price meal purchased. The school district receives $2.57 total for each free and reduced lunch, $1.74 total for each elementary school lunch and $2.04 total for each middle-high school lunch.

Revenue sources for the school nutrition program are federal lunch payments of $685,385, federal breakfast payments of $289,446, state matching funds of $12,146 and funds from students paying the full price set by the district, $324,442.

New regulations imposed by the Texas Nutrition Policy will allow no carbonated beverages at schools until the last scheduled class, Helms said, and add other regulations.

“We have already met that criterion,” Helms said. “It’s very positive for our district.”