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Subsidized school lunches -- a matter of finances, taste and nutrition

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Recent changes to the National School Lunch Program have been controversial, with some student, parents and educators complaining about them. A few school districts nationwide have even decided to drop out of the program.

This week on “Take Care,” Tracy Fox, president of Food, Nutrition and Policy Consultants in Washington, D.C., discusses the history of the school lunch program, the new guidelines, and the reason behind why some school districts are dropping out.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Tracy Fox.

The federal government began implementation of the new school lunch regulations in the 2012-2013 school year. The purpose was to make the meals more nutritious for children.

“Those changes, basically, brought the school meal standards up to date with current dietary recommendations,” says Fox.

Fox says the rules increased the amount of fruit and vegetables kids are supposed to consume, by half a cup a day. They also require more whole grains be used in pastas, breads and other products. The regulations also decrease the amount of sodium in the school-produced lunches.

But Fox points out that the new guidelines did not have to be put in place overnight. Fox says all the changes are being phased in, with schools being given the longest time to reduce sodium levels – 10 years.

One hundred thousand public schools in the United States choose to operate the National School Lunch Program. They all receive financial subsidies for doing so. In order to continue to receive that money they have to follow the new regulations.

“The majority of schools across the country – over 95 percent of public schools – do choose to operate the National School Lunch Program. So they do need to abide if they want to receive the reimbursement from the Department of Agriculture,” says Fox.

But the amount of money schools receive varies. School districts receive money for each student eating lunch, but it’s based on the income levels of the families. Schools that have the lowest income students receive the highest amount per meal. The lowest amount a district would receive per meal, is 30 cents for high-income level students.

Much attention has been given to the complaints by some students, districts and educators -- that there’s not enough food in the meals; that students are throwing away the fruits and vegetables; or that kids just don’t like the more nutritious food. But it seems that the basic reason for some school districts leaving the program is financial.

Fox says most of the schools dropping out of the program tend to be in higher income level areas, who weren’t receiving a lot of money for being in the program. Combine that with complaints, and it may just not have been worth it.

“For some schools who really weren’t serving a lot of meals that were reimbursed, they might feel that it’s to their financial advantage not to opt in to the program,” said Fox. “They might have felt that it was a little too arduous. It is a fair amount of record keeping. You do have to have a certain variety and array of products on the menu all the time.”