Capital Region BOCES is expanding its efforts to combine area school districts' food programs and is looking at eventually creating a centralized kitchen that would serve multiple districts.
The efforts were bolstered by a Regional Economic Development Council grant for more than $900,000 that was announced last week.
School districts mostly operate their own food programs – some hire outside vendors and others run programs in-house – but BOCES hopes districts will see a benefit to transferring some of their food service operations to a regional hub.
“Food services, as a district business, requires a level of commitment on the operations side a lot of districts can’t support,” said Joe Dragone, Capital Region BOCES senior executive officer.
The regional operation could help manage lunch programs, coordinate cooperative purchasing, take over the clerical work of processing free and reduced-price lunch paperwork and, in time, begin producing and delivering meals to schools in different districts.
Dragone said the shared food service program, which allows districts to get reimbursed for some of the costs of using the program, will be rolled out incrementally. Districts may start by using the BOCES service for a review of their current food programs and how they can be improved. Participating districts that experience savings would also learn how they can add services by working with BOCES.
Dragone said that under an expanded shared food service program BOCES could take the lead in making combined regional purchases of local produce, easing that process for both school districts and farmers. In time, if enough districts join, BOCES could be in a position to operate a centralized kitchen that would produce and deliver meals to multiple districts, lifting that production burden from districts and opening up space schools now use for food preparation.
“When it comes down to that regional approach, it’s about the efficiencies of that kind -- efficiencies for service providers and efficiencies for school districts,” Dragone said.
The Niskayuna Central School District was among the first to jump into the shared food service program. The district's new food director, Jeff Bradt, is a BOCES employee who also manages the food program at the Berne-Knox-Westerlo Central School District.
Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tanogrra Jr. said he is always looking for ways to combine or share programs with other districts and organizations. Every dollar the district can save from its food service operation, he said, is a dollar that can be spent on academic programs for students, or returned to taxpayers.
“It’s about being much more efficient with the taxpayer dollars and how we can redeploy those dollars to things that will be enhancing the academic program,” Tangorra said.
Dragone last week said he described to superintendents the portfolio of new food program services BOCES can offer. He was hopeful districts would consider adopting some of those measures as part of next school year’s budgets. The more districts that come into the shared service, he said, the more BOCES will be able to do.
“It really is a specialty to be able to put together a product that students want to purchase, that is tasty and is healthy as well as within [state and federal] guidelines," Dragone said. "It’s a specific skill set. This allows a level of expertise and a level of commitment we can provide districts they may not be able to provide on their own.”