Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Fries and Cookies Pay the Bills in North Carolina Schools

Andrea Weigle at The News & Observer, a North Carolina paper, has written an excellent piece entitled Kids' waistlines vs. bottom line about the difficulties of providing healthy food to school children on tight budgets and complicated funding systems. Schools are trying to include healthier choices. As in Seattle Public Schools, they have switched many products and ingredients to include higher fiber and whole grains, for example, and even the brand name a la carte items are often of higher nutritional value than their counterparts in stores and restaurants.

North Carolina has even piloted new standards for nutritional content, but pilots failed because the healthier foods were more expensive and they lost the extra income from selling "a la carte" snack and popular foods, so the schools lost piles of money. In the NC system, those a la carte sales are expected to provide revenue for a significant portion of lunch budgets, withouth which free and reduced lunch reimbursements and paid lunch proceeds fall far short of necessary funds. Part of the problem with the pilot programs for healthier foods is that the state legislature passed dietary rules without enough money to cover the losses during the transition. [Note: In the UK, schools that increased local purchasing, more fresh foods, and meals cooked on-site have found that they experience a dip in sales, but that school lunch participation eventually rebounded and increased. Of course this is specific to the situation and requires extra efforts and ability to weather the dip.] These are important considerations for those of us who wish for change in a hurry, believing that if we just tell schools to serve better food, it will happen. As we're all learning, it's much more complicated than that, and that legislative solutions must be well-researched and include adequate funding to make the transitions a success.

Another interesting tidbit from the article:

The situation is further complicated by a U.S. Department of Agriculture requirement that school cafeteria meals provide a minimum number of calories. Nutritious foods alone often fall short, forcing schools to add high-calorie dishes or risk losing their federal free- and reduced-price lunch subsidy.

Some of the problems raised in the article are specific to North Carolina's method of funding school lunch programs. Does anyone know the details in Washington, and how they affect schools' options? If so, speak up in the comments--we'd all love to learn about it! (Or come to the next Farm-to-School meeting for the School Nutrition Directors panel and ask them how the funding system affects their options.)