New requirements by the federal government mandating healthier lunches in the region’s schools are placing a bit of a burden on local school districts.
The changes are the result of a federal mandate signed into law in December, 2010, but local school administrators say they weren’t alerted about the specific criteria until late last month.
Sherri Parks, director of child nutrition for Surry County Schools, said yesterday that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 mandates that the schools serve healthier, more nutritious food in the cafeteria. The program will be rolled out incrementally over the next three school years.
“What the act is about is making meals more healthy in a very specific way,” Parks said. “The plan will address both breakfast and lunch, set a weekly minimum for starches and must include more fresh fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains.”
Elke Boyd, director of child nutrition for the Mount Airy City Schools, said the school system already is committed to serving healthy meals daily.
“Mount Airy City Schools have already increased offerings of whole grain rich foods and taken other steps that lead to a healthier lifestyle,” she said. “We support the U.S.D.A. and the Department of Public Instruction’s stand on improving the overall wellness of our students and the need to provide additional funding for schools to support this endeavor.”
According to Parks, the county’s school system has been working toward serving healthier foods for years, but new restrictions on sodium levels in the schools are going to be a challenge to implement in the school system.
“This is going to get really complicated because these are really stringent targets,” she said, noting that a single can of soup has more sodium than is allowed in an entire meal under the new regulations.
But the problem isn’t restricted to the local school systems, Parks said.
“Right now, manufacturers aren’t ready for the new regulations. We can’t purchase stock with sodium levels low enough for the requirements at this point because we just don’t have access to these types of problems at this time,” she said.
Many of the requirements mandated by the act already are being implemented in the county’s schools, however.
“We have already started a lot of this,” she said, “so most of the new requirements aren’t going to be much of a problem for the county’s schools. We already offer only whole grains, one percent milk and plenty of fruits and vegetables.”
Parks said the challenge is going to be finding ways to economically follow the sodium restrictions, which are still being put in place.
“We’re going to have to try to work with the manufacturers who supply our food and try to focus on how we’re going to go about procuring low-sodium program items,” she said. “I’m even concerned about our ingredients that go into the recipes we cook. They contain more sodium that I believe the program is going to allow.”
Funding the Mandate
According to Parks, funding the new requirements also is going to be a challenge.
The county’s school lunches are funded primarily by the federal government, which reimburses the schools on a per-meal basis.
Lunches that are purchased at full price by the student are reimbursed by the government at a rate of 28 cents per lunch. Reduced price lunches are reimbursed at $2.39, and free lunches are reimbursed at a rate of $2.79 per lunch.
Breakfast meals are reimbursed at a rate of 27 cents per paid breakfast purchased. Reduced price breakfasts are reimbursed at a rate of $1.50 per lunch by the government, and free breakfasts are reimbursed at a rate of $1.80 per breakfast.
But the money barely covers existing costs, Parks said.
She noted that the government has indicated that it plans to provide additional per-meal funds, but the amount may not cover the increased costs of meals under the act.
“If we meet the criteria of these new guidelines, we’re supposed to be able to add six cents per meal reimbursement,” she said. “That just isn’t a lot of money. We appreciate it, but we’re concerned about the cost of meeting the requirements and what this is going to mean to our bottom line.”
Fresh fruit and vegetables, she noted, are costly.
“We’re tasked with keeping our costs to what the federal government gives us per meal,” Parks said. “We get some funds from a la carte sales in the cafeteria, but we don’t get any local funding.”
The school nutritionist said that so far the cafeteria hasn’t had to subsidize any meals, “but this is going be challenging to make it work with our available funding.”
Administrators called the new regulations “the biggest legislation to affect the school lunch program in 15 years.”
“Overall, we’re excited about the guidelines because we feel like it’s the right thing to do for children,” Parks said. “We’re already in compliance with most of the requirements, but are concerned about the low sodium requirements. We’re confident that we’ll be able to meet them before the program goes into effect but are concerned about the financial strain on our program.”
When you add an additional cost of a nickel or quarter to a student’s meal it doesn’t seem like much, she added. “But when you multiply that across 1,000 children a day, it does add up.”
Reach Keith Strange at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1929.