Imagine you have to feed 10,000 hungry kids for an entire school year on a limited budget. You’d have to start by maximizing your groceries while minimizing your costs — which is exactly what Child Nutrition Director Leeda Beha does.
“It’s like extreme couponing” she said.
Extreme couponing was popularized by a TV show of the same name. It encourages the use of stackable coupons, digital deals, mail-in rebates, and buying in bulk to make every dollar stretch as far as it can go.
For school districts, the USDA provides an annual amount of money called “entitlement.” Entitlement is based on the previous year’s number of lunches served. Last year the entitlement amount for Bethel was $595,612.
Just like a coupon, if you don’t spend your entitlement, you are wasting money.
“We use the USDA foods as the base of our menu,” Beha said.
Making a grocery list
Bethel’s Central Kitchen gives us the opportunity to make a lot of our own food, so Beha shops more for raw products at the OSPI warehouse, rather than “heat and eat.”
“A 40-pound case of ground beef is around $100 of entitlement,” she said.
At $2.50 a pound, that’s even cheaper than Costco.
Ground beef is a staple in Bethel, because it’s used in so many recipes: taco meat, beef gravy, chili, spaghetti sauce and more.
“Extreme couponing” for districts takes a lot of time, and requires knowledge of all the systems that are in place to get the best deals on food.
“If you’re a new person coming into school meals and you don’t have anybody helping you with it, it can be really hard,” said Beha.
If districts don’t use up their entitlement, OSPI will offer “bonuses” for other districts to take advantage of.
“I always take bonus,” said Leeda. “It’s basically free food. Last year I was able to take $162,411 in bonus USDA Foods because of our awesome Central Kitchen’s frozen and dry storage capacity. I got $67,796 worth of canned fruit!”
$67,796 worth of free fruit. No strings attached.
That’s quite the coupon.
Time to eat!
The USDA’s $595,612 is one part of Bethel’s total food cost and Beha’s “extreme couponing” is a simple way of talking about the complex process of budgeting for school meals.
Last year the Bethel School District served up 2.3 million nutritious meals.