The topic on the agenda was student nutrition, but food wasn’t what launched Tuesday's discussion.
School Board Director Kris Newcomer questioned why a proposed board policy covering “Student Nutrition Operations” mentioned the need to “develop and sustain healthy relationships.” Is that really an appropriate focus for a nutrition policy?
“I think it either promises something we can’t deliver or shouldn’t deliver under our nutrition services,” Newcomer said. “My concern is this opens up a door to a place I don’t think we should be going as a district.”
At its heart, Newcomer’s concern is about the appropriate role of public schools.
Hopkins Public Schools has cultivated a reputation for a focus on student wellness. Just this month Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) visited Eisenhower Elementary to check out the Farm2School program that brings fresh produce from local farmers to school lunches. Last year, TPT Television filmed at Meadowbrook Elementary while making an hour-long documentary on the program.
But Newcomer questioned how far the district should go toward promoting student wellness and the price it’s willing to pay.
She’s not the only one asking such questions.
In a recent interview, David Arvidson—the Republican candidate for House District 46B, which covers part of the Hopkins school district—described what he sees as mission creep in schools. He cited attention deficit disorder diagnoses as an example.
“There is an incentive for the school system to find something wrong with our children,” Arvidson wrote in the e-mail interview to be published next week. “The funding to our school system is extremely generous. The way it is spent, however, deserves our scrutiny.”
School districts—and likely most school board directors—disagree with Arvidson’s assertion that schools are generously funded. But there’s no denying that the healthiest choices aren’t always the most economical.
Newcomer, who’s part owner of the Gold Nugget Tavern and Grille, pointed to beets as an example. While Hopkins serves them to students, Newcomer said her restaurant doesn’t include them on its menu because of the cost.
Adjusting meal prices to reflect the higher cost of healthy ingredients isn’t necessarily an option. Federal requirements limit what districts can do in what School Board Director Betsy Anderson characterized as an unfunded mandate.
But even without those requirements, the School Board has so far chosen a costlier path in which it’s willing to pay more for healthy meals. Just this spring, it approved a nutrition policy that explicitly puts healthy food choices ahead of profit considerations when developing the school nutrition program.
“The student meal programs shall aim to be financially self-supporting,” the policy states. “However, the program is an essential educational support activity. Budget neutrality or profit generation shall not take precedence over the nutritional needs of the students.”
Insisting on healthy, more-expensive foods even when it cuts into profits has real financial impacts. During the 2006-07 school year, the district made about $800,000 from à la carte sales, said Barb Mechura, the district’s food and nutrition services director. In the summer of 2007, the district pulled the remaining items that it deemed unhealthy—including sports drinks, large dessert bars and snacks like Doritos. Revenue has since dropped to the $500,000 to $600,000 range.
Revenues are so far keeping up with expenses, but that’s not a given. If healthy food costs the district more than it brings in, general fund money would fill the hole—diverting funds from other programs.
Newcomer said the district must balance its “fervor for healthy food” with its fiduciary responsibilities.
That’s not an easy balance to find. For now, the board’s policy monitoring committee will consider the issue further—looking into exactly what “budget neutrality” means and the district’s role in promoting student wellness.
“We do care deeply about the whole child. That’s why we’ve spent so much time on this particular set of policies for the board,” board Chairwoman Susan Wootten said.