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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

School lunches: The balancing act continues

A number of comments posted to a recent story on school lunches asked why schools don’t eliminate meal programs entirely. Another asked about the financial impact of the free and reduced lunch programs. Both point to interesting trends in the food services industry.

A public school in Chicago, for example, has drawn fire for doing the exact opposite of what a number of The News-Herald’s commenters suggested: It prohibited students from packing lunches at all, unless the students have a medical excuse. The reasoning: Schools can provide healthier lunches in a more controlled environment than students are likely to pack on their own.

According the Chicago Tribune, the ban has been in place for six years at Little Village Academy, where the principal says it stemmed from concerns over nutrition. Elsewhere in the city, such as at Claremont Academy, students are allowed to pack lunches but snacks that are high in salt or sugar are confiscated, according to the Tribune.

Although our local schools here in Lake and Geauga counties generally haven’t taken such extreme measures as prohibiting packed lunches, they have been working to update their lunch programs to comply with changing federal regulations and, in some cases, to increase meal purchasing rates among students.

Free/reduced-price programs
One area in particular that actually helps school cafeteria budgets is the free and reduced-price programs – because by “free to students,” we mean “schools get reimbursed (or partially reimbursed) by the government.”

“With the economy the way it is, we have seen more free and reduced applications and that always helps us because it helps with the cost of the lunch (and it) makes it more available to them,” said Lois Szuhay, manager of food services at Willoughby-Eastlake Schools.

Ohio law requires schools offer breakfast programs in any building where a certain percentage of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

“Believe it or not, even though we don’t serve a lot of breakfast in our district, it does help us to be able to cover the costs overall. … The higher the free and reduced-price eligible students in the district, usually it’s a little bit easier to be self-supported and be in the black (financially), so more affluent schools have a harder time to be in the black because they’re not getting as much participation,” said Kelly Minnick, director of nutrition services for Riverside Schools.

The flip side to the free and reduced-price program, though, is schools are required to offer certain types and quantities of food in order to be eligible for federal reimbursement, so as those requirements change, the direct costs to the schools also change, Minnick said.

Meal planning
The biggest question in my own mind as I approached this story regarded what long-term habits are being taught by encouraging students to purchase meals every day. If they just walk in and buy whatever’s on the line that day, or choose whatever suits their mood, are they learning meal-planning skills? Or are we merely teaching yet another generation to survive on quick and easy, purchased meals?

The answer I heard from school personnel was the same as with many other questions I’d asked: It depends on the individual family. Some parents actively plan meals along with their children, while others may not.

“It just goes back to what they’re doing at home,” Minnick said. “If a child is coming from a family that buys breakfast and lunch at school and then they go out for dinner every night, they’re probably not going to be learning that skill.”

However, efforts are made to encourage thoughtful meal selection, she said. For example, elementary students choose their entrée in the morning rather than when they arrive for lunch, and some teachers springboard that into a math lesson for the day, Minnick said. And she encourages her staff to check each student’s tray to see whether one of the five components (protein, fruit, vegetable, grain, dairy) is missing and, if so, to ask the student if he or she forgot to pick up something.

In Chardon Schools, where Sodexo representatives actively market the school meal offerings, students have some opportunity to learn meal planning by becoming involved in a student advisory committee, which works with the Sodexo representative to plan special offerings.

Madison Schools is looking at starting a similar effort sometime in the future, food services director Patricia Masters said.

“I’m going to try to get something like that started next school year. I want to get them involved, maybe introduce something in the elementaries and let the kids participate and see what happens, so I know the teachers are promoting health food and we’re all working together. We all want the same results: The kids to have a healthy meal,” Masters said.

-Rachel Jackson



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