Health-conscious Utahns are drinking less, putting school districts in something of a bind as lessening tax revenues produced through alcohol sales cuts into school lunch programs.
Nobody's is suggesting that Utahns imbibe more, and school officials can't help but crack an ironic smile at the trend.In Utah, a 13 percent sales tax on wine and hard liquor pays for the state's share of school lunch programs. Most of the remainder is picked up through federal matching funds, said H.H. Winawer, state Office of Education child nutrition coordinator.
For about the past seven years, revenue received both from the liquor tax and from other school lunch funding sources has failed to keep pace with increasing costs to administer the program in many of Utah's 40 school districts.
And Winawer said school officials who once were able to make up for school lunch programs shortfalls with budget reserves no longer can, given tightening education funding.
There's no apparent solution to the dilemma. But Winawer has formed an ad hoc committee of superintendents from the Box Elder, Alpine, Washington, Nebo, Piute and Park City school districts to look for solutions that can be used statewide.
One major problem faced by many school districts is that health insurance and other benefits for lunchroom employees have increased far faster than funding.
In addition, some districts aren't able to get student participation needed to get enough federal assistance to help the programs break even.
Some poorer districts have less of a chance than others of raising money by increasing school lunch costs, Winawer said. Others just simply don't have enough students to make the program cost-effective.
Box Elder School District Superintendent Steven Laing said his district is among those that have had to rely on budget reserves to make its school lunch program break even.
"We simply can't continue to subsidize a program that's supposed to be self-supporting," he said. "It's becoming more and more of a problem for everyone."
He's proposed districts try to increase their student participation rates with gimmicks used by the fast food industry to lure young customers.
In Box Elder, that has meant students now lunch on hamburgers and french fries, Laing said.
Officials have also tried to make school cafeterias more inviting, playing pop music and replacing the traditional long rows of rectangular tables with circular tables where students can more easily talk to one another.
Other school districts have more problems with their school lunch programs than others, but all agree they'll benefit from the committee's findings.