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School lunch officials balance nutrition, costs


Recent federal and state regulations that require schools to serve healthier lunches have driven up food costs and made schools juggle menus to balance health, finances and what kids will eat.

Another set of rules rolling out this fall will order schools to lower calorie counts on snack foods, improve breakfast offerings and serve up even more whole grains.

Few school leaders argue against the idea of healthier food, but they do call it another “unfunded mandate.”

“Once schools get federally compliant, you get an extra 6 cents per reimbursable meal, but that doesn’t cover the cost of what they’re requiring,” said Joshua Ashley, food service supervisor for Clark-Shawnee schools.

The School Nutrition Association, which has 55,000 member schools, said 90 percent of its members have seen their food costs increase under the new healthy-lunch rules. Several local school districts said their per-meal costs went up 20 to 30 cents because of the new requirements.

The other side of the coin is whether kids are eating the healthier meals.

School officials in Tecumseh, Clark-Shawnee and Beavercreek all saw their number of school lunches purchased drop at times last year, mirroring a trend that saw about 1 million fewer students nationally buy lunch each day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

School food service officials say all the well-intentioned nutrition changes will do no good if kids won’t eat the food that’s served. National nutrition officials said food waste was a major issue when the new standards went into place, in many cases because schools were picking one vegetable to serve with each meal.

Tecumseh schools’ director of child nutrition, Stacy Reynolds, said her district added a fresh fruit and vegetable bar this year, so each student could find an item they liked and still make the meal comply with federal rules. Of course, that costs money — Reynolds said Tecumseh’s food costs have gone up by roughly $5,500 per month due to all of the new requirements.

The taste of the foods shouldn’t matter over the health of students, said Pat Bebo, a leader of nutrition programs at Ohio State University.

“This is a diet or meal plan that’s going to benefit these young kids who … have a future that looks to a higher risk of chronic diseases because of weight issues,” Bebo said.

Ashley said Clark-Shawnee schools at first saw a 15 percent drop in school lunch purchases, but as in some other districts, those numbers are bouncing back.

“We studied lunch participation on given days, and adjusted based on what meals the kids buy and what they don’t,” Ashley said. “Once that happened, we saw an average increase in participation of 60 meals a day. That’s pretty good.”

Federal and state law

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act took effect in 2012, aiming to curb childhood obesity by placing calorie limitations on school meals, increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables served in the cafeteria and introducing more whole grains, among other things.

School districts must comply with the rules so they can receive federal reimbursements for free and reduced meals, which are offered to low-income families. Brigette Hires, a nutrition official with the Ohio Department of Education, said this is the first year that schools are being inspected to make sure they comply with the standards.

Many local school districts had already made progress toward healthier cafeterias because of Ohio Senate Bill 210, which took effect in 2010 and 2011. That law cut into the number of sugary beverages and unhealthy ala carte items that could be sold alongside full meals in school cafeterias.

But those ala carte items, while less healthy, are often profitable to schools. They’ll get even stricter regulation next fall, with limits on sodium and fat.

“That will affect us directly,” Ashley said. “With the lower participation in reimbursed meals, one of the areas where we were able to keep revenues coming in was with the ala carte items. … I’m not looking forward to (the changes), but what can you do?”

What Clark-Shawnee will do, Ashley said, is raise lunch prices next fall, after keeping them steady this year. He said the district will have to decide whether to do a gradual increase, such as 10 cents per year for three years, or do it all at once. Ashley said the district’s food service program likely will end up narrowly profitable this school year.

Reynolds said Tecumseh’s lunch program has been profitable for 10 years, and has not raised prices in five years, so the district is just absorbing the higher food costs.

Challenges

In Springfield and Dayton schools, higher poverty means every student qualifies for free breakfast and lunch. With higher numbers of students eating those meals, cost discrepancies can pile up quickly. Cathie DeFehr, nutrition services director for Dayton Public Schools, said next year’s rules require an extra cup of fruit at breakfast, but provide no extra reimbursement for that 20 cent-per-meal cost.

Ashley said seemingly annual changes in nutrition requirements make it hard for schools to serve good lunches within the rules and within the budget.

“You have a single food service director for the district trying to meet federal requirements with calorie ranges, sodium levels and what you must serve, while at the same time trying to offer a variety of foods to the students to try to at least maintain the participation level,” Ashley said.

While Ashley is just in his third year running food service at Clark-Shawnee, he has some extra insight, as his father, Chris Ashley, is food service supervisor for Springfield City Schools.

“It took my father and his assistant, who have 60 years of food service experience, eight months to get federally compliant menus,” Ashley said. “It’s a very difficult process. … One slice of bread can throw off your menu for the entire week.”


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