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USDA Regulations Could Harm School Cafeteria Bottom Line

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The Ogdensburg City School District cafeteria could be facing tough times ahead as new federal guidelines restrict the snack food options available for schools to sell.

Starting with the 2014-2015 school year, schools across the nation will no longer be able to sell candy bars, high-fat chips, chocolate sandwich cookies and other high-fat, calories, sugar and sodium snacks as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Smart Snacks in School” standards.

“We’re going to see a devastating impact on the cafeteria budget when the regulations are fully in effect,” Brian R. Mitchell, Ogdensburg cafeteria director, said.

The Ogdensburg cafeteria has seen growth over the past several years. Mr. Mitchell said, while the final numbers won’t be in until later this summer, the 2012-2013 school year ended with the cafeteria in the black with a nearly $35,000 margin.

“A lot of it is a la carte sales,” Mr. Mitchell said of the income that’s driving the cafeteria’s success.

Mr. Mitchell said of the 44 percent of students who don’t have free or reduced lunches, about half buy snacks from the a la carte menu significantly contributing to the financial health of the cafeteria.

But the new regulations could squash that flexibility as healthier – but possibly less tasty – foods are required to fill up the snack options, Mr. Mitchell said.

Mr. Mitchell said the sizes of snacks, like bags of chips, will also be reduced under the new regulations.

“What saves our district,” Mr. Mitchell said, is that there are so many “free and reduced [lunch students] that parents are going to have their kids buying meals at school every day [regardless of the new standards].”

In other words, the government will be subsidizing roughly 56 percent of the meals purchased at the school no matter what happens, Mr. Mitchell said.

“I think by the time that regulations roll out you’re going to see a lot of changes (for snack options),” Mr. Mitchell said. “I can guarantee you they’re not going to sell as good, but if we can keep three-quarters of the revenue we’ll be OK.”

And hope is not all lost, Mr. Mitchell said.

Because the regulations are not coming into effect for another full year distributors are working on getting healthy, tasty snacks ready for sale, Mr. Mitchell said. As an example Mr. Mitchell pointed to the whole grain pop tarts that are becoming available.

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