Bozeman public schools’ lunch program sold more lunches last year and made a profit but still found it hard to get kids who like pancakes and cookies to eat healthier meals.

“Things are going well,” Mike Waterman, school business services director, said Tuesday.

The total number of lunches sold to elementary students increased by about 18,000 meals or 8% over the year before, Waterman said. That more than offset a drop in the meals sold at the high school and middle schools. In all, the program sold 325,600 lunches last school year.

The lunch program made a profit of more than $158,000, its biggest in seven years. Revenue rose to $1.9 million, the highest in six years. The profits of the last two years will help replenish the program’s reserves, after four years of losing money.

“We operate this program as a business,” Waterman said. “Our goal is to break even over time.”

If the lunch program isn’t profitable, then it could eat into general fund dollars needed to pay for teacher salaries and education.

School board trustees heard an update on the school lunch program during a special noon meeting at the Support Services Building on North 11th Avenue, where school lunches are cooked in big kitchens. This is the second year that Brittany Selvig, support services supervisor, has been in charge of the program.

The schools sell freshly made-from-scratch entrees many days of the week and this year started promising them every Monday.

But just like many parents, the school lunch staff finds that processed foods are often more popular with kids than made-from-scratch meals intended to be healthier.

At the elementary and middle schools, more kids line up on days when the menu offers mini-pancakes, French toast sticks, pancakes on a stick and chicken nuggets. Those options attract 2,200 kids and sometimes up to 3,100.

The fewest kids line up for homemade soup, mac and cheese, fiesta bowls and local baked potatoes with chili. Those attract about 1,000 kids.

At Bozeman High, the most popular a la carte items are cookies, chips, brownies, Peace Tea and Gatorade. The most popular entrees are pasta, Asian meals, tacos or any Mexican dishes, pizza and sub sandwiches.

The school board voted in 2015 to take Bozeman High School out of the federal lunch program, finding that stricter health guidelines requiring less sugar and fat, intended to fight an epidemic of obesity, made it harder to compete with restaurants that high school kids can easily walk to. The staff isn’t recommending any changes but will continue to monitor the program, Waterman said.

It will be interesting to see what happens next year, he said, when Gallatin High, Bozeman’s second high school, opens at Oak and Cottonwood roads, where there aren’t restaurants right across the street.

At the Bozeman elementary schools, all meals comply with federal healthy meal guidelines. Some 41% of elementary students bought full meals last year, while middle-school student participation in school lunches slipped to 25%.

Bozeman’s lunch program spent nearly $13,000 on more than 12,000 pounds of locally produced food last year. That included apples from Swanson’s Mountain View Orchards near Hamilton, local beef, and Bausch potatoes from Whitehall. But finding local sources can be a struggle. For example, locally grown carrots cost $3 per pound, compared to 80 cents for out-of-state carrots.

One trend is a steady slip in the number of students signing up for free or reduced priced lunches, based on family income, from nearly 1,400 students six years ago down to 900 last year.

One of the lunch program’s biggest challenges is hiring enough staff. Bozeman High had to start this year by closing its South Cafeteria, near the oval drive off Main Street, because of a staff shortage. That means a potential loss of $21,000 in income. And students have to stand in longer lines at the newer North Cafeteria, go to restaurants off campus or bring sack lunches.

Waterman said the new union contract raises entry-level pay for lunch workers to $12 an hour in an effort to hire more people.

“Everybody in town knows there’s a labor shortage,” he said.

The Support Services Building just got new solar panels installed on its roof, which could reduce power bills. Solar panels are intended to help run refrigerators and other power-intensive equipment.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

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