Food waste 2: Winter storms can be costly

Last month’s string of school weather closures is sending an economic shockwave through kitchens — with some school districts reporting unprecedented losses.

“I predict a loss of around $500,000, or more,” said Nampa School District food service director Sheila Keim.

Nutrition managers in school districts hit hardest say thousands of dollars worth of spoiled food contribute to the financial losses, but staffing costs and stifled revenue from strangled food sales and federal reimbursements play a weightier role.

Snow days aside, school districts throughout the state grapple with food waste on a daily basis. For a detailed report of what Idaho schools are doing to combat food waste, click here. Read an article written by a group of nutrition experts on the benefits of healthy eating practices in school.

“It is tough when we are out of school,” said Bonneville School District food service director Heather Plain. “We still pay our full-time employees their regular wage, and we have the food on hand for that week, but there is no revenue generated for that day to cover these costs.”

Federal guidelines require K-12 kitchens to operate on a nonprofit basis, but school districts still rely on USDA reimbursements and extra money from meals sold to help cover costs. Districts receive these funds when kids show up to eat the food.

Plain said Bonneville was fortunate enough to incur only minor losses from a handful of snow days in East Idaho last month. Idaho Falls school nutrition manager Faye Olsen likewise pegged her district’s estimated food-loss total at a minimal amount: “about $20 worth.”

But districts throughout the Treasure Valley weren’t so fortunate. Record snowfalls toppled entire school weeks in some places, leaving school ovens cold and shelves of perfectly good food untouched for extended periods.

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As a result, the Boise School District racked up a long list of wasted food: a case of apples here, a quart of yogurt there, mozzarella sticks, corn dogs, milk and much more — all thrown out due to bygone expiration dates or “damage” incurred from the storms. A list compiled by Boise food managers puts the total amount of food wasted at $2,000.

Neither the Boise, Bonneville nor Idaho Falls school districts provided Idaho Education News with lost revenue estimates stemming from staffing expenditures or slowed USDA reimbursements.

But officials in the Nampa School District say nearly three straight weeks of snow closures combined for a perfect storm of loss.

Nampa’s first snow day came on Dec. 16, the last day before a two-week Christmas vacation and the “worst day” for a school closure because no one was able to take care of large quantities of prepared meals. Warehouse personal either restocked or donated some food items three days later, but the district had to toss out an unusually large quantity of food, Keim said.

School resumed after the holidays on Jan. 3, with workers restocking kitchen shelves and ordering in even more food for the second half of the school year.

But another round of pelting snow then forced 10 more days of school closures in the district. A second storm then toppled nearly another week of school days.

Just 10 school days in January resulted in a monumental loss, Keim said. The district is now petitioning government agencies for food reimbursements in the wake of the epic winter.

“I have asked our state agency if there will be any consideration for this,” Keim said. “They have referred the matter to the Western Region office of USDA.”

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