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Federal limits to school snacks could eat away at revenue

Published On: Mar 13 2014 09:28:32 PM CDT


A federal program aimed at getting kids to eat healthier snacks could force cuts in certain districts’ lunchrooms.

Susan Peterson is in charge of nutrition for the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District. Peterson said the effects of the Smart Snacks In Schools program will have a much greater impact on her lunch line and her bottom line.

Peterson estimated the changes will lead to a $100,000 structural deficit for the food services sector, thanks to the impact they will have on her al a carte items.

“These programs are a rare opportunity to give kids a look at what a balanced meal looks like with fruits and vegetables and milk in an appropriate portion size for their age. But I can't provide that for them if I can't keep them in my lunch line,” Peterson said.

Without that money, Peterson said she is forced to consider raising lunch prices by at least a quarter. Lunch for high school students already costs $3.05, one of the highest prices in the area, Peterson said.

Peterson is also looking into cut backs on meals and staffing.

“If we lose money and do not have a fund balance to cover that, educational funds have to be diverted in order to bring the balance back up to zero,” Peterson said. “And in an era of very tight educational funding, that is just not acceptable.”

Smart Snacks In Schools, which will be implemented July 1 across the country, is the latest change in school lunch guidelines under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. It puts even stricter limitations on the amount of sugar, salt and calories a snack item can have if it is sold in a cafeteria.

Peterson said subbing in recipes and pre-packaged food available to her students is easier said than done. For instance, certain manufactured options available now are greater than what will be allowable come next school year. Peterson said smaller portion sizes are not easy for those companies to accommodate quickly, and those are some of her most popular items.

“I'm wondering if we don't need to slow the process down so that we can allow the manufacturers to catch up, allow the retail sector to begin to introduce healthier products for all of us so our palates adjust, and not just rely on the school program to make a difference for kids,” Peterson said.

The changes will affect districts across the state and across the country differently based on how they handle their finances and their al a carte items.

Districts like DeForest and Sun Prairie have already limited their al a carte items, and don’t allow their students to leave campus for lunch. The head of nutrition in Sun Prairie said food hasn’t been offered al a carte for about seven years, and the new rules will have the greatest impact on the sizes of some of their offerings.

Other districts, like Waunakee and Wisconsin Heights, chose to contract out their food services. Wisconsin Heights’ superintendent said while his budget isn’t directly affected, the company they hire to run the lunchrooms does have to follow general USDA guidelines.

Peterson said she will work with other administrators to come up with a plan and recommend it to the board and finance committee in the next couple of weeks.

“It's not about politics. It's not about money. It's about kids,” Peterson said.

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