Healthier school lunch rules could cost districts

As school districts try to trim the fat from the budget, the government wants them to do the same with fat and salt from school lunches.

But better nutrition and lower costs don't always go hand in hand.

Lunch line classics like pizza and grilled cheese might not make the grade anymore. Earlier this year, new guidelines came out from the USDA that require schools to cut sodium, increase dark green vegetables and limit starchy vegetables like potatoes to one cup a week. So, no tater tots every day.

Amie Hamlin from the NY Coalition for Healthy School Food said "We need to focus on whole, fresh unprocessed foods without artificial ingredients like artificial colors and flavors and preservatives."

Ithaca schools already have fresh fruit, salads and sliced vegetables, but they're worried about how to pay for everything in the new requirements.

"We all know healthy foods cost a lot more so that's one of our concerns," said Denise Agati, Interim Director for Ithaca's Child Nutrition Program.

A bill before Congress right now estimates the the new lunch rules could cost schools an additional $7 billion over five years and wants the USDA to reconsider the rules so it doesn't place "unrealistic demands" on school districts.

Amie Hamlin continues, "I think the intentions are wonderful but its an unfunded mandate. Really, schools are being asked to do more with less."

Much of the cost of putting out a school lunch comes from federal reimbursement, especially in districts where students receive free or discounted lunch. The new, healthier rules could add 14 cents to the cost of each lunch but, as of right now, school reimbursement would only go up by six cents. Not what struggling school districts want to hear.

Denise Agati adds, "The way we are right now, we're trying to keep up with the guidelines and all the extra means all the extra cost."

Advocates are recommending that school districts use more whole grains and beans in their menus. They will fit the new requirements, are healthy and will help keep the budget balanced.

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