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Schools and parents at odds with national lunch program

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In the last year, school cafeteria managers faced revenue loss as more students began throwing away their green beans and brown-bagging their lunches.

As lunch prices increase and sodium, protein and serving sizes are expected to be regulated for school breakfasts as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, parents and cafeteria managers once again will be at odds about what to feed the children.

The 2012-13 school year was the first to be affected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines on calories, grains and protein for school lunches. Schools in the National School Lunch Program needed to comply by having students take the required fruit and vegetable portions in order to be reimbursed for free and reduced lunches. September was a tough month for most school districts in the north country, when students rebelled against the smaller portions and calorie-restricted meals by bringing in their own.

The students who did not bring their lunches were throwing away untouched the three-bean salad, milk and whole wheat spaghetti that were put on their trays.

Students throwing away food is nothing new for Craig P. Orvis, Watertown City School District food service director.

“Waste-wise, yeah, there’s waste,” he said. “There’s always been waste. I don’t think there’s more waste. It’s just more highly priced waste.”

Watertown has one of the biggest school lunch programs in the north country but never recovered from the revenue nosedive last fall when students started packing lunch.

“We used to have 67 percent of our student body buying lunch,” Mr. Orvis said. “At the end of the year, we were running at 64 percent.”

As meals have gone up in cost, so have the lunch prices. This year, most schools were federally mandated to increase the price to eventually meet the amount they are given for free- and reduced-lunch reimbursements.

Watertown increased its elementary prices by 20 cents last year to avoid having to increase them again this year.

LaFargeville Central and General Brown Central school districts increased theirs by 10 cents. South Jefferson Central School increased elementary prices by 10 cents, while middle and high school lunches had a 5-cent change.

TO QUIT, OR NOT TO QUIT

South of here, a few districts have quit the federal program, including the Schenectady-area Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central Schools system, whose five lunchrooms ended the year $100,000 in the red.

Near Albany, Voorheesville Central School District Superintendent Teresa Thayer Snyder said her district lost $30,000 in the first three months. The program didn’t even make it through the school year there after students repeatedly complained about the small portions, and apples and pears went from the tray to the trash untouched.

Districts that leave the program are free to develop their own guidelines. Voorheesville’s chef began serving such dishes as salad topped with flank steak and crumbled cheese, pasta with chicken and mushrooms and a panini with chicken, red peppers and cheese.

However, not every district can afford to quit. The National School Lunch Program provides cash reimbursements for each meal served: about $2.50 to $3 for free and reduced-priced meals and about 30 cents for full-price meals. That takes the option of quitting off the table for schools with large numbers of youngsters from low-income families.

Last year’s switch in lunch offerings spelled $24,881.89 in losses for South Jefferson. Initially, the district feared it would lose as much as $40,000 based on projections from earlier in the school year.

When district officials learned the losses were only around $25,000, “we were actually breathing a sigh of relief,” said Business Administrator Joseph J. Eberle at the district Board of Education meeting Monday night.

Mr. Eberle said the lunch changes led to a decrease in student participation by 25 percent, which drastically undercut the federal and state money that helps support the program. The district’s lunch fund now sits at $93,618, after starting last year at $118,500. The less-than-expected loss means that the district will have about three to four years before the fund runs out, which may require a general-fund transfer to keep the program afloat.

“When we long-range planned, we thought we had three years. At the halfway point, I thought we only had two years,” Mr. Eberle said. “We were relieved to see that we have another year, if you will, until we run out of cash.”

Despite the regulations, the district is making one change that it feels may help win back students: returning macaroni and cheese and hot dogs for lunch on opening day. Last year, the district pulled the items, which have appeared on the first day’s menu for years, because of the new guidelines. The district also is getting students’ opinions on food items that may become a part of future menus.

PRICES GOING UP

Students at General Brown bought 200 fewer lunches last year than in the 2011-12 school year.

Although the breakfast program made $27,000, district administrators anticipate upcoming guideline changes to the breakfast program will have negative effects.

District officials said they fear they cannot raise lunch prices fast enough.

Throughout the 2012-13 school year, the district increased the price of lunches by 30 cents, from $1.75 to $2.05.

It probably won’t stop there.

“It’s hardly going to put a dent in it,” said Lisa K. Smith, district treasurer. “In order to make up the gap, you’d have to increase lunch prices by over 50 cents. That’s not feasible.”

Other challenges the district faces include not being reimbursed for meals if students do not take all food items offered for that meal on their trays, and the struggle to recoup the $7,000 owed to the district from parents whose children have unpaid balances. Mrs. Smith said repeated letters go out to those residents until the balances are paid; if it persists through 12th grade, the district reserves the right to withhold a student’s diploma.

Although LaFargeville managed to keep its cafeteria’s revenue positive, Superintendent Travis W. Hoover is nervous about the upcoming year. For example, breakfast no longer will be the popular eggs and sausage plate, because that meal contains too much protein.

“It’s a concern, for sure,” Mr. Hoover said. “It’s getting tighter and tighter, just like for the rest of the school.”

He said many of the wellness changes at his district began five years ago, helping to ease the school into the federally mandated regulations. While there was a dip in revenue at first, the cafeteria was back in the black after September.

“We had already eliminated some of the more fatty items and fried items,” Mr. Hoover said.

LaFargeville also promoted new fruits — like star fruit — and vegetables during “Try-it Tuesday.”

“That’s one of the biggest things, just getting kids to try new foods,” Mr. Hoover said.

FILLING THE TRASH

However, that does not keep food out of the trash. Mr. Hoover said many students in his district do not like drinking milk, and end up throwing it away.

The more food that gets tossed out, the hungrier students will be later in the day.

“They’re famished when they come home,” said Donelle L. Thompson, mother of three children who attend LaFargeville. “They’re starving. And they’re required to take a serving of fresh fruit whether they’ll eat it or not, which I find really wasteful.”

Her children, who are seventh- to 10th-graders, buy lunch at school depending on what is served. When they came home last year, she said, the first words out of their mouths was, “What is there to eat?”

In Clayton, parent Sarah M. Cox said she does not rely on Thousand Islands Central School’s lunches to nourish her rising fourth-grader, 9-year-old Jack B. Natali Jr. She said she does not understand why schools continue to serve frozen pizza and chicken nuggets despite the USDA restrictions.

“All they’re doing is making them go home and eat more,” she said. “I think if you want to lower obesity, you should have different choices, not less of the same choices.”

She and Mrs. Thompson said they do not blame schools for the changes over the past year. However, the parents said they want to see better changes made by the government.

“I like that there are more fruits and vegetable choices, but it should be a choice,” Mrs. Thompson said. “Too much is being shoved down their throat — pardon the pun.”

The Associated Press and Times staff writers Rebecca Madden and Gordon Block contributed to this report.

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