Schools looking at slimmer food options

Posted Tuesday, Jul. 29, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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No more PTA pickle sales, no more Gatorade at lunch, no more field day treats, and every kid who eats breakfast will have to take some fruit, whether they want it or not -- that’s the message Mansfield trustees heard at last week’s school board meeting.

Under the USDA’s Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) and new Smart Snacks Rules, school districts that participate in the National School Lunch Program will have to take a closer look at their PTAs’ food fund-raisers, ditch high-sodium and sugary foods and drinks and bulk up on the fruits and veggies.

“In 23 years in nutrition, I’ve never seen restrictions change this fast,” said Gaylan Mathis, the Mansfield district’s student nutrition director. “We’re the bad guys that have to implement it, we’re just the messengers.”

Trustees seemed even more surprised.

“Without a doubt, it is government overreach gone haywire,” said Michael Evans, school board president. “This unfunded mandate will cost the district millions of dollars and hit hard-working PTAs and booster clubs. That’s a problem.”

Since the 2012-13 school year, the federal government has mandated that for the district to receive credit for a full lunch students have to take a half serving of fruit or vegetables. This year, that mandate extends to school breakfast, too. And Texas Senate Bill says that schools that have 80 percent or more of their students on free or reduced lunches have to offer a free breakfast to all students. The Mansfield district has one school -- Glenn Harmon Elementary -- that qualifies. These new requirements do not come with federal or state funds.

“We have seen a lot of kids that need the whole meal, need the extra food,” Mathis said. “A lot of kids that weren’t taking the food (before), we’re seeing a lot of waste. Those are kids who want Gatorade and pizza.”

But they won’t be seeing Gatorade anymore -- too much sugar, Mathis said. And that’s going to cost the district, too. In the 2013-24 school year, the Mansfield district made a profit of $179,000 selling Gatorade. Students passed on the diet version, G2, buying only a few cases.

Personal pizzas and calzones in the high schools’ al a carte lines are also out, Mathis said, but his staff is working on alternatives that will closely resemble the former products. The al a carte lines will be gone, too, because similar products would have to be available to students on free and reduced lunches, he said.

“We will be turning the al a carte line into a federally-funded line, and there will still be some pizzas and calzones, but they will be slightly smaller,” Mathis said.

The USDA left it up to each state to decide if they wanted to continue to allow “exempt” days, times when schools could sell non-nutritious meals. Texas, which had allowed three exempt days, chose not to allow any free days. Mansfield elementaries had used the exempt days for Valentine’s or Christmas parties, and primarily for field days, when students could earn special treats sold by the PTAs.

“Texas has had stricter restrictions than the USDA since 2006,” Mathis said. “We can’t have fried food or diet sodas, but they’re still legal in other states.”

Two percent -- $900 -- of Alice Ponder Elementary’s PTA budget came from field day, and another 9 percent -- approximately $4,000 -- from the sale of pickles and popcorn at lunch and snacks at after-school events.

“We’ve been planning PTA stuff all summer,” said school board secretary Karen Marcucci, whose three daughters attend Ponder. “We don’t know what we’re going to do right now.”

Otis Spunkmeyer cookies, which several of the high school PTAs sell during lunch periods to raise funds for after-prom parties, should meet federal guidelines, Mathis said, because the manufacturer knew the new guidelines were coming. Other fund-raisers that are sold outside of school or 30 minutes after the end of the school day will not be impacted by the new mandates, Mathis said, such as basketball concessions.

Trustees balked at approving an increase in school meal prices, voting 3-3 for the proposal that would have raised breakfasts from $1.25 to $1.50 and elementary lunches from $2.25 to $2.50, intermediate from $2.25 to $2.75, middle school from $2.50 to $2.75 and high school from $2.75 to $3. The proposal was tabled and will be revisited at the board’s work session Aug. 5.

The proposed price increase is due to higher food prices, the addition of fruit for all breakfasts and parity with the free and reduced lunch prices required by the USDA, which reimburses the district $2.93 for each meal. If trustees decide not to raise meal prices, the cost -- about 35 cents per paid meal -- will have to be absorbed by the district, Mathis said.

Last year, Mansfield’s nutrition program served almost 5 million meals, but Mathis said he will have to do some research to figure the cost to the district if trustees decide not to raise prices.

School board members asked Mathis for more information, including what it would cost the district to opt out of the National School Lunch Program, he said. Other school districts, like Southlake Carroll, have chosen to drop out of the program. Others, like Grapevine Colleyville, have taken just their high schools off the national lunch program, Mathis said.

“We’re going to look at all of the options,” Evans said. “The last thing we want to happen is for the community to shoulder the burden of millions of dollars.”

Amanda Rogers, 817-473-4451 Twitter: @AmandaRogersNM

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