Published Online: May 3, 2010

N.C. Schools See Higher Costs With Healthier Meals

Schools under pressure to cut down on calorie-laden cafeteria food are finding the extra cost of building better lunch menus poking holes in their budgets.

More than half of the state's 115 school districts are losing money feeding their students, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported Sunday.

The General Assembly four years ago required schools to serve more fruits, vegetables and whole-grain food but did not give administrators extra money for the higher costs of the more nutritious foods. School districts made the changes, but have faced financial losses ever since.

"An apple costs me 22 cents. A serving of canned apple sauce costs 11 cents. When figures are tight, which is Wake County going to do?" Marilyn Moody, Wake County's senior director of child nutrition services, told the newspaper. "When the legislature says they want to see more fresh fruit but don't provide any funding to do it, it's a value decision that each director has to make."

Child health advocates say school food programs needed to change to combat childhood obesity. The Department of Health and Human Services ranked North Carolina 14th in the country in 2008 for the percentage of youths aged 11 to 17 who were overweight or obese. Nearly 18 percent of youths were overweight, and 15 percent obese.

A lunch meal costs an average of between $3.05 and $3.20 to make. Federal subsidies cover 60 percent of a district's food program's budget. About 38 percent comes from sales and the rest from other sources.

"What's happening in school districts across the nation is people are scratching their heads and deciding what the priorities are for their program," said Lynn Harvey, who oversees child nutrition for the state Department of Public Instruction. "Is the purpose to provide nutritional, affordable meals? Or is the purpose to generate revenue? That's where we find our districts now."

The state's Legislative Task Force on Childhood Obesity recommended the legislature adopt several measures after it convenes May 12 that would allow school food programs to get more federal dollars and to devote more of their revenue to quality food.

One recommendation would have the state pay for reduced-cost meals. That would cost the state $5.2 million, but it would boost the number of kids eating for free and snare about $5 million more in federal cash, according to the School Nutrition Association of North Carolina.

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