How Trumbull school lunch program climbed out of six-figure deficits this year to turn profit

Angelica Buehler prepares made to order sandwiches for students in the cafeteria kitchen at Trumbull High School, in Trumbull, Conn. April 22, 2021.

Angelica Buehler prepares made to order sandwiches for students in the cafeteria kitchen at Trumbull High School, in Trumbull, Conn. April 22, 2021.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

TRUMBULL — Betty Sinko hasn’t achieved the impossible, but she’s been making progress.

Sinko, the schools’ lunch manager, was already looking at a budget deficit this year due to financial irregularities detailed in an operational review. Then the program’s only revenue source, selling school meals, was taken off the table due to a federal program that made every child eligible for free meals this year.

Gov. Ned Lamont also mandated that school employees not be laid off during the COVID-19 shutdown, meaning the lunch program could not cut expenses. And the pandemic increased meal delivery costs as everything had to be individually packaged.

Tanya Zakhour serves hot meals to students in the cafeteria kitchen at Trumbull High School, in Trumbull, Conn. April 22, 2021.

Tanya Zakhour serves hot meals to students in the cafeteria kitchen at Trumbull High School, in Trumbull, Conn. April 22, 2021.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

However, the school lunch program, once estimated as high as $1.2 million in the red, is now profitable, though it likely won’t be able to cover its accumulated losses this year, according to Superintendent Martin Semmel.

“We started out with a significant deficit, but then with students remote learning or in hybrid learning, we had six-figure deficits in September and October alone,” Semmel said. “We were still paying the workers, but the amount of food we were giving out wasn’t meeting expenses.”

Through the federal program, schools get reimbursed for food they give to students. So the more meals the schools distribute for free, the better it is for the school financially, Semmel said.

Sinko and the lunch staff began adapting to the situation. Curbside meal pickup has increased since beginning last March.

“Last year, when schools shut down, we had a day to plan how we were going to get meals to 7,000 kids each day,” Sinko said. “We also started getting meals to siblings, anyone under age 18, even if they weren’t students.”

The workers have embraced the challenge of feeding students on the go, while also providing in-school meals to students learning in-person that day.

“We do curbside pickup Monday, Wednesday, Friday,” Sinko said. “So if a family has four kids, that means on Monday, they come by and we hand them 16 meals — breakfast and lunch for Monday and Tuesday.”

In addition, when the buses arrive at school, the lunch workers are ready with grab-and-go breakfasts before heading into the kitchen to begin preparing lunches for delivery to elementary school classrooms starting at about 10:30 a.m. The middle and high schools have resumed eating in their cafeterias.

Parent volunteers also began serving as delivery drivers, bringing meals to students who were remote learning to eke out a few more program dollars.

These combined efforts meant that by February, Semmel said, the deficits that had been over $100,000 for September and October shrunk to less than $8,000. In March, the program managed a small profit and school officials anticipate it will edge further into the black over the last two months of school.

“With the high school students back full-time starting next week, just having them back in the building we’re expecting to see a profit in April, May and June,” he said.

Sinko said there was no substitute for students going through a lunch line and getting a hot meal. It’s both personally gratifying and better for the bottom line.

“It’s just so nice having kids go through the line and get the food they like, not have to grab a sandwich every day,” she said. “Even seeing kids be able to grab some fruit — they haven’t been able to do that in months.”

Semmel credited Sinko’s planning and the staff’s hard work for the turnaround.

“We’re really excited that all their hard work paid off,” he said.

Sinko sounded amazed at what the staff was able to accomplish.

“A typical day the staff preps meals to be ready when the buses arrive. Then within another hour they’re getting ready to hand out curbside 2,200 meals (across all schools),” she said. “Then between 10:30 and 11, they’re delivering meals to classrooms. Everybody’s running around like crazy, but it’s starting to turn around. We pulled it off.”

deng@trumbulltimes.com