Columbia Public Schools evaluate school lunch operation costs to meet federal regulations
BY NATE ANTON
A 2010 federal law is causing many Missouri public schools to reassess the costs involved in its school lunch programs.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was initially passed in 2010 but regulations didn’t go into effect until July 2012, allowing schools some time to make necessary changes and adjustments for a smoother transition.
One of the costliest aspects of the law requires schools to serve students either a fruit or vegetable with every meal. Many Missouri schools are facing budget deficit issues as a result of serving more costly food. Columbia Public Schools are among those experimenting with different techniques to meet the new, federal regulations.
Laina Fullum, director of nutrition services at Columbia Public Schools said the increase in cost for purchasing healthier food will impact the budget.
“We run in the black, which unlike some of the more rural schools do not. We have historically run in the black, but we know it’s going to take a big chuck out of our budget this year,” Fullum said.
Schools in compliance with federal regulation receive up to $2.92 per meal for students qualifying for free or reduce-priced meals. Schools serving lunch at a lower price must eventually raise the price to match the government’s compensation rate.
“We basically were on top of it from the get-go and kept gradually raising our prices to keep pace with USDA’s new regulation to raise prices,” Fullum said.
Fruits and veggies aren’t the only foods factoring into increased food costs.
“The other requirement that costs quite a bit is whole grains. Not all whole grains are created equally nor accepted by children. So we have to make sure we’re investing in a whole grain that will actually be edible to a child.”
Young students tend to be pickier when it comes to the healthier menu options. While schools are able regulate what students receive on their lunch trays, they can’t force students to eat the healthier items.
The increase in food waste has already alarmed administrators. Fruits and vegetables aren’t always the most appealing to children, so Columbia schools have taken measures to help reduce waste.
“We pre-wrap our whole fruits and vegetables so that if a student doesn’t really want to take a fruit or vegetable, or maybe he does, but doesn’t end up eating it, they can actually put the unwrapped fruit back in a share basket and either other students can eat it or we can put it back in our stock,” Fullum said.
Columbia Public Schools didn’t get off to the best start when initially making the transition, but it was a good learning experience. During the 2011-2012 school year the district focused on preparing necessary changes by doing things such as testing new recipes.
“We have learned a tremendous amount of things about our student population,” Fullum said. “And I do believe as a result of the struggles from this year that we are in a much better place, and I feel like we have accomplished a great deal.”