New rules bring fresh look at school lunch
When the bell for Monticello High School's first lunch period rings, freshman Blakley Nesselrodt heads to "the snack bar" in the cafeteria.
Never mind that it's two or three times as long as the hot lunch line.
Students move quickly though the snack bar, where the a la carte and snack items are sold. Some take a hot sandwich wrapped in foil, nachos and cheese and a baggie of freshly-baked cookies, while others grab a Gatorade, bag of chips and candy bar or chocolate ice cream cup from the freezer.
Nesselrodt opts for her usual — a breaded chicken sandwich and French fries. She pays for the items, then takes a seat at a long table with friends.
"I don't really like the regular school lunch," she said, grimacing at the thought of the baked beans, cooked vegetables and some of the whole-grain bread products, all of which she won't touch. "I like the snack bar because you have more to pick from."
If the snack bar closed, "I still wouldn't eat the school lunch," insisted Nesselrodt, who hasn't bought one since she was in middle school, where a la carte items aren't offered. "I would pack my own lunch and go out and buy what I like."
Monticello school officials faced having to ditch most of the snack bar fare to meet a new tier of federal nutrition guidelines for the National School Lunch Program, which will take effect in the 2014-15 school year.
"When we applied the regulations to our a la carte and snack items, we found we wouldn't be able to sell about 80 percent of them. And our a la carte sales make up about half of our total food sales," said Superintendent Vic Zimmerman, who had already been trying to plug a major deficit in the food service budget.
So instead, Monticello decided to drop out of the federal lunch program at the high school and offer its own program next year.
"It's still going to be healthy," Zimmerman said. "But we're going to be able to serve the food that kids like and will eat. ... And we don't think we'll lose as much money."
The Piatt County district won't be alone. Last August, the Catlin district was one of 524 schools nationwide to cut ties with the federal program.
And St. Joseph-Ogden High School district officials are considering following suit rather than trying to meet the tighter mandates on a la carte and snack items.
Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National School Lunch Program is available to all public and private schools and residential child care institutions. Schools participating in the voluntary program are reimbursed for meals served and given access to lower-priced foods.
In return, schools must provide free meals to children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level and reduced-price meals to children from families with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level.
Students from families with incomes above 185 percent pay full price, though their meals are still subsidized to some extent.
Participating schools receive reimbursements of $2.30 to $3 for free and reduced-priced meals and about 30 cents for full-priced meals. If schools don't comply or drop out, they're not eligible to receive that funding.
Last year, the USDA announced its new "Smart Snacks in School" nutrition standards aimed at providing students with healthier food options during the day.
"This governs all food sold in school during the school day," said Greg Lazzell, Danville schools' food service director and a member of the Illinois School Nutrition Association's Legislative Action Committee.
Part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, they're the same standards for lunches, implemented in the 2012-13 school year, and breakfast, put in place this year. They require schools to serve more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and leaner proteins; food that's lower in fat, sugar and sodium; and smaller portions.
Students will still be able to bring their lunch, and parents will still be able to bring in treats for birthday parties, holidays and other celebrations. And food sold at after-school or weekend activities won't be subject to the restrictions.
But "it will affect some fundraising, like when kids go around selling candy bars during the school day," Lazzell said. "We still don't have direction from the state of Illinois on how that will be handled. The state is still waiting to hear from the USDA."
Along with putting the Smart Snacks rules into place beginning in the fall, Lazzell said schools will also be required to offer two fruits a day and reduce sodium content to 20 percent.
"There will be even more calorie and sodium reductions in 2016," he said.
A $35,000 loss
When the new lunch guidelines went into effect two years ago, Monticello's food service staff made the necessary menu revisions.
Then, lunch sales dropped dramatically.
"We were losing about $100,000 a year in our food service program," Zimmerman said, adding they saw more food going into the garbage cans than students' stomachs.
"The guidelines require us to serve items like three orange vegetables a week. Can you name three orange vegetables? Squash, sweet potatoes, they wouldn't eat them. Kids like carrots but not three times a week. You've got to serve them, but the kids won't eat them, so there's a huge waste of food."
Head cook Julie Wolfe changed the menus again, but officials still didn't see the increase in lunch sales they were hoping for. Then the district made some structural changes, including purchasing food through Aramark, a world-wide food service management company. The move saved the district about 15 percent of its overall food costs, which ran about $376,281 last year, Zimmerman said.
But then came the snack restrictions. Zimmerman crunched the numbers. If the school stayed in the federal lunch program, he estimated the district would lose $80,000. If it pulled out, the loss would be roughly half of that.
The school board decided the smaller loss was more palatable.
So next year, Monticello will still provide all five components of the traditional school lunch — bread, a meat or meat alternative, fruit, vegetable and dairy product.
It will also introduce new food stations. One for burgers and fries; one for sub sandwiches, wraps and veggie sticks. Another — for pizza, salad and breadsticks — could be offered daily, while a fourth may rotate Mexican, Chinese and other cuisine.
Wolfe said the meals will be healthy. But they'll also be able to bring back popular items that they haven't been able to serve the last two years.
"French fries will make a bigger comeback because we'll be able to deep fry them," she said, adding that kids now could take or leave the baked versions.
In Monticello, about 12 percent of the 515 high school students are eligible for free and reduced lunches. So leaving the federal program means losing $35,000 in federal reimbursements.
But Zimmerman hopes the loss will be offset by an increase in sales. Students who now receive free and reduced lunches will continue to do so, he added.
Zimmerman said lunch prices may go up a bit, but the portions will be larger and the food quality a little better.
"It won't be a significant increase," he said. "It will still be the best deal in town for lunch."
Hold the gravy
Two weeks from now, St. Joseph-Ogden Superintendent Jim Acklin plans to present his board with a recommendation to drop out of the federal lunch program.
"It's not a done deal yet. But I would be surprised if the board doesn't pull out," said Acklin, who shared the current financial situation with members last month.
This year, Acklin projects the food service budget will be $13,000 in the red. However, once the new guidelines kick in, it could be much higher.
In the last fiscal year, a la carte and snack sales accounted for 86 percent of the food service's $98,390 in revenue. Head cook Rhonda Lee said more students started buying those items after the school lunch restrictions were put in place, and they had to serve tacos without cheese and sour cream, mashed potatoes without gravy and spaghetti without garlic bread.
"Under the new guidelines, we wouldn't be able to sell many of those items," said Acklin, who estimates the loss in a la carte sales could be about $367 a day or more than $62,000 next year.
The school also has an open campus. So, if the district stayed in the program and had to pull the items that didn't meet the guidelines, Acklin suspects more kids would grab lunch downtown.
"The kids can walk to Subway. They can walk to Monical's. And once they go off campus, obviously, we're not in control of what kind of food they're eating," he pointed out.
Acklin said about 13 percent of the high school's 485 students qualify for free and reduced lunches. So, the district would lose a little less than $7,000 in federal reimbursements if it dropped out.
"We're going to take a little bit of hit, but not a $60,000 one," he said. "We may have to take a look at the lunch prices and bump them up a bit. But we're still going to make it an affordable alternative."
If St. Joseph-Ogden gets the go-ahead to drop out of the federal program, officials said the school lunch menu will definitely be tweaked.
"It's not going to be all sweets," Lee said. "We're still going to stay healthy, but try to bring back some of the things the kids like."
"I'll be able to have a little gravy on my mashed potatoes," Acklin said, enthusiastically.
How 'bout them apples?
Other smaller area school districts — including Mahomet-Seymour, Heritage, Oakwood, Paxton-Buckley-Loda and Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley — said they are not considering pulling out at this time.
And the large local districts, which rely on the federal subsidy to help feed low-income students, can't afford to drop out. That's why it's not even a consideration for Champaign or Danville, officials said.
In Champaign, more than 60 percent of the district's 9,300 students are eligible for free or reduced lunches. In Danville, 78.7 of the district's 5,732 students qualify.
"Without question, we have a huge need in our community," Lazzell said. "And we may be providing the only hot, nutritionally balanced meal they will have, especially breakfast. We have a huge participation with breakfast. We see these kids come back on Monday morning, and they're hungry."
Mary Davis, director of food services for Champaign Unit 4, said she already has been working with vendors to switch out a la carte and snack items at the high schools and middle schools that serve them.
"We're 80 to 90 percent there," she said.
Out in Champaign: Doritos. In: Baked Doritos.
Out: the original hot pretzels with cheese. In: lower-fat whole grain pretzels with lower-sodium cheese.
The Domino's pizza that's sold is now a healthier version than the one previous Champaign students ate. And come fall, the Flamin' Hot Cheetos — a big seller — will be replaced with a reformulated version and Hot N' Spicy Goldfish crackers.
The good news for sweets-craving students at Central High and Jefferson and Edison middle schools: TCBY frozen yogurt will stay on the menu. It will be added to the menu Franklin Middle School next year, Davis said.
"They have many flavors that meet the requirements," she said.
In Danville, Lazzell said his staff also has been quietly phasing out most of the products that don't meet federal nutrition guidelines.
"We have seen additional plate waste," he said. "But we've seen a huge improvement in acceptance by offering more fresh fruit and vegetables. We not only provide fresh apples but we rotate the variety — Granny Smith, Gala — along with fresh orange wedges, kiwi and melon and other seasonal fruits when they're available."
In the remaining weeks of the school year, Danville High will gradually say goodbye to the few remaining a la carte items that won't meet the tighter restrictions. So long, breaded chicken tenders, popcorn chicken and chicken breast slammers (the school's version of sliders).
"We're also working through our student advisory board to prepare the student body for that," Lazzell said.
Highlights of the "Smart Snacks in School" nutrition standards:
1. Healthier foods, more whole grains, low fat dairy, fruits, vegetables and leaner protein.
2. Food items are lower in fat, sugar and sodium and provide more nutrients.
3. Factors such as portion size and caffeine content vary by age group.
4. Parents can still send their kids to school with homemade lunches and treats for activities such as birthday parties, holidays and other celebrations.
5. Foods sold after school at sporting events and other activities aren't subject to the requirements.
6. States and schools with stronger standards can maintain their own policies.
Mmmm, baked beans ...
The top 5 hot lunch items that meet federal nutrition guidelines, but go uneaten at two high schools poised to drop out of the National School Lunch Program:
Grape tomatoes (discontinued)
Unbreaded chicken breast on whole-grain bun
Other cooked vegetables
Wing Dings: Not a food group
The top 5 most popular a la carte items available at two area high schools — and whether they meet federal nutrition guidelines:
Otis Spunkmeyer cookies: No
Beverages (bottled water, flavored water, tea): Yes
Wing Dings (breaded chicken pieces): No
Soft pretzels: Yes, but only without the cheese and salt
Breaded chicken sandwiches: No
Gatorade and chocolate milk: No
Chocolate ice cream cups/Twix ice cream bars: No