Local districts say new school lunch law won’t change much

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 17, 2010

NATCHEZ — Throw away the pizza, fries, candy bars and sodas, because area schools are getting a health food face lift thanks to a new program originating in Washington, D.C.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was passed by Congress and is expected to be signed by President Obama later this month, is set to raise nutritional standards for school lunches, and also lower the amount of junk food and high-sugar beverages from school vending machines.

Another aspect of the $4.5 billion bill is a 6-cents-per-meal increase for federal reimbursement of school lunches, the first increase for reimbursement in more than 30 years.

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“The 6-cent increase is going to increase our reimbursement by roughly $30,000 for the year, we hope,” Natchez-Adams County School District Child Nutrition Program Supervisor Dan Hogan said. “This money is not going to be earmarked for anything, it will just go into the general fund.”

Hogan said the district serves approximately 4,000 students breakfast and lunch at area schools, and while the extra 6 cents per meal will help, it is still not enough.

“We have a 95-percent participation rate with our school lunches,” he said. “It really should have been closer to a 40-cent increase.”

Hogan said the average cost for the district to supply one meal for a student is approximately $3.20; the district currently gets federal reimbursement of $2.74 per meal.

“The 6 cents would bring the federal reimbursement up to $2.80 per meal,” he said. “This is still 40 cents lower than the cost.”

As for making lunches healthier, Hogan said the State of Mississippi has been offering more nutritious options for years now.

“We do a nutritional analysis on all of our menus so that they meet healthy guidelines. Mississippi is in the top 10 in the nation for providing healthy school lunches,” he said. “We make sure our all of our meals meet the requirements for healthy meals, this legislation is really to address the states that do not have healthy guidelines in place.”

Hogan also said vending machines have been taken out of student areas and snacks are required to have less than 200 calories.”

Other aspects of the bill, such as creating new programs for things like food safety, will not affect the Natchez-Adams schools, Hogan said.

“We have been following the serve safe food program for five years now,” he said. “There is not anything in this new list of rules that we are not doing already.”

Concordia Parish School Board School Food Service Supervisor James McGee said the approximately 3,500 students the district serves each day will also not be affected very much by the new bill.

“We are already providing healthier options for lunches,” he said.

“You can’t have a candy bar or Coke until after lunch, and 50 percent of the snack food has to be healthy, such as fruit juice and water.”

McGee also said that while the 6 cents per meal increase will help, it is not going to bring any new equipment to the schools.

“It will not improve the school food lunches at all,” he said. “It will go into our funds and help pay the bills.”

McGee said the average lunch for students costs approximately the same as it does in Adams County, and that the reimbursement rate is also similar.

McGee also said the school board is trying to get more students to eat at the schools, and has seen some success as claims for the month of November 2010 showed an increase of 5,000 lunches from November 2009.

“The older the students get, the less they eat in the cafeteria, and we are trying to change that,” he said. “We are offering more options and better choices.”