Anderson schools’ lunch profit is down nearly 10 percent; officials blame new federal nutrition standards; students object to food

Anderson County school officials say new federal nutrition standards are costing them money and hurting poor students because the students don’t like how the food tastes are opting out of school meals, Editor Ben Carlson reports for The Anderson News in Lawrenceburg.

The school-lunch program’s profits dropped nearly 10 percent. From August through December, the schools saw a year-to-year decline of 8 percent in the number of meals served, and 54 percent of that reduction came from students who receive free or reduced lunches, Carlson writes.

Schools in Clark County reported only a 1 percent decrease in participation in their school lunch and breakfast programs since the 2013-14 school year, despite similar complaints about the new federal nutrition standards.

Schools that take money from the federal government for their meal programs are required to follow the nutrition guidelines of the 2010 Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act, which requires schools to reduce salt and fat; use more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and limit calories by age. The law targets child obesity, in which Kentucky ranks high.

Kentucky is first in the nation for high-school obesity, eighth in obesity of children 10-17, and sixth among 2- to 4-year-olds from low-income families, according to the “States of Obesity” report.

Anderson County Supt. Sheila Mitchell and Ronnie Fields, the district’s director of operations, told Carlson that with 48 percent of their students participating in the free and reduced-price lunch plans, they could not afford to drop out of the program like the wealthy Fort Thomas Independent School District did. Nationally, about 150 school districts had withdrawn as of August, Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported.

Students and parents told Carlson that students aren’t buying school meals because “the food simply doesn’t taste good” and school officials told him that they too are frustrated and recognize that many students are “coming to school hungry and going home hungry.”

Students told Carlson “The food is gross,” and “The food is getting progressively worse.” One said, “You only get three things on your plate” and if it doesn’t taste good, they don’t eat it and go home hungry. One parent who had eaten a school lunch said, “I would not feed that to my dogs.”

The district says it is working to improve food quality by surveying students, trying to serve foods they like, experimenting with new recipes, offering samples of new menu items and seeking temporary waivers that will allow them to continue using only 50 percent whole grains.

Another challenge faced by school cafeterias is that they are designed to be “self-sufficient,” Fields told Carlson. They must “generate enough revenue to cover all expenses, including labor,” And in years past, he said, they functioned with a “healthy surplus,” even using this surplus to replace older equipment if the amount of surplus became more than they were allowed to have on hand. But now, because profits are down 9.5 percent since the start of the year, he said, “We’re basically trying to break even.”

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