By Kim Walter
Although some local school divisions saw a decrease in the number of students participating in the National School Lunch Program last year, it wasn't enough for them to drop out of the program.
When the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act went into effect at the start of the 2012-2013 school year, students noticed a number of changes on their plates if they bought meals at school.
Starting last year, students were required to have a fruit or vegetable on their tray in order for it to count as a full meal. Additionally, divisions were given a minimum and maximum amount of protein and bread allowed in a student's meal. Schools had to adjust portion sizes accordingly.
All milk had to be fat free or 1 percent, and at least half of all grains offered had to be whole grains.
Most divisions were aware of the upcoming requirements, and tried to phase in some the changes so as to not completely shock students and parents.
Reports came out last week describing isolated cases in which school systems dropped out of the federal school lunch program because they had lost so much money from lack of student participation.
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-priced meals. Local divisions likely couldn't afford to quit the program even if they wanted, since it's such a large source of funding. On top of that, area school divisions have high percentages of students on the free and reduced-price plan.
During the Aug. 8 meeting of the Shenandoah County School Board, Dr. Kevin Castner, acting superintendent, noticed the dip in students who were buying lunch.
"Some of these percentages have gone down by almost 10 percent," he pointed out. "Why?"
Beverly Polk, food services supervisor, said some of it is due to changes in enrollment. However, she also acknowledged that not all kids were as open to the new healthy requirements.
Overall, the division saw a 3 percent decrease in student participation in the school lunch program.
Frederick County Public Schools are having a similar experience, with 54 percent of students buying school lunches, compared to 58.5 percent in the 2011-2012 school year.
Steve Edwards, coordinator of policy, records management, and communications, said it was hard to pinpoint a specific reason for the decrease.
"In some cases, I would guess students didn't care for the healthier food choices," he said via email on Thursday. "However, there may be other factors, such as cost."
The division had to raise the cost of school lunches by 10 cents in order to meet the standards of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
"While school meals offer a very good value, the increased cost may impact whether some students decide to purchase a meal at school or bring their own lunch," he added.
Even with the decrease in participation, the division has no plans to drop out of the federal program. Edwards said the school system's nutritional services operation relies upon the federal funds.
However, Frederick schools are working to "do a better job of marketing school meals in order to increase student participation."
Warren County Public Schools is one local exception to the trend, though. SueAnn Fox, food service coordinator, said her department was aware of some of the federal changes years before they were required. She made the decision to start implementing some of the healthier options in phases so that by the time they were required, students wouldn't have much of a reaction.
"Our kids were used to taking a fruit or vegetable, and they got over doing away with the 2 percent milk," she said. "We did samplings, and really encouraged our teachers and staff to make healthy choices so the students saw that it was normal."
By the beginning of 2014, schools have to offer 100 percent whole grains as part of the meals. Fox said her goal is to implement that as soon as possible, since the division already offers whole grains well over 50 percent of the time.
From the 2011-2012 school year to the most recent one, the division saw an almost 2 percent increase in the number of students participating in the school lunch program. All individual schools either stayed the same or increased.
"It's all about making better choices at an earlier age," she said. "I think the federal program is doing the right thing in that sense, and I'm happy we have the opportunity to serve food that is good for students, and something they will enjoy."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org