Thanks to a federal school meal program, the Schenectady school district is using extra money in its food service budget to upgrade school kitchens and cafeterias across the district.
Some of the money is being used as the district revamps Howe Elementary School – which is closed this school year. Aging refrigerators are being replaced and the high school cafeteria is in line for a $165,000 face lift over spring break.
At Schenectady High School, new tables and seating will be installed, with designs intended to maximize collaborative spaces and opportunities to use the cafeteria for study halls and group work.
Permanently fixed high-top tables and booths will replace some of the traditional roll-out cafeteria tables. Bar-style seating will be added along a window that looks out onto a patio, and more seating options will be added to the outdoor space, under to a plan nearing completion.
“We are trying to create alternative learning spaces, trying to move away from a traditional cafeteria setting,” high school Principal Diane Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson said she hopes the cafeteria remodel will be finished over the school’s spring break in April.
The district uses the federal Community Eligibility Provision, which allows certain low-income districts to offer free breakfast and lunch to all of their students. For each meal the district serves to students that meet income levels, it gets reimbursed at a level higher than without the special program. Since adopting the program a couple of years ago, the district has seen a 23 percent increase in the number of lunches it serves.
As a result, the district had over $3.5 million in its food service fund at the end of the budget year on July 1. But since the district is allowed to hold reserves of only $1.6 million in that fund, it has nearly $2 million that needs to be spent down.
The money won’t be put to use all at once. As the district moves ahead with replacing around $40,000 worth of the highest priority kitchen needs – refrigerators and other equipment spread across the district – officials will put in place a long-term replacement plan to phase in new equipment more broadly.
Fran Reilly, an assistant business official in charge of overseeing the district’s food service contract, said to satisfy state requirements for spending down the surplus funds, the district is working on putting together the equipment replacement plan to update district kitchens, most of which are just used to heat and serve food cooked at a central location. The district is also in midst of replacing outdated cafeteria tables.
In the meantime, the district is planning to put its multimillion-dollar food services vendor contract up for bid in the spring. The district’s current food vendor, Whitsons Culinary Group, will have a chance to make a proposal, but so will other vendors. This year the district was budgeted to spend nearly $5 million on contractual food services – the bulk of its $6.5 million food service budget.
Reilly said under the new contract, the district will be looking for a wider variety of options and more opportunities to offer input, particularly from students, into school menus. The district is also looking to improve the quality of the meals offered as well as continue to update the layout of cafeterias across the district, Reilly said.
“We would like to have more say in the food that is being served,” Reilly said.