More Fruits and Vegetables in School Lunches but No New Money for Kitchen Improvements

Many school districts don’t have the money for equipment or training to implement the new dietary guidelines for the national school lunch program, and Republican members of the House have not provided any federal help in the fiscal 2012 budget.

Announcing its markup last night of the Department of Agriculture’s appropriations bill, the House Appropriations subcommittee included only the small (six cents) mandatory increase in school lunch reimbursement in its recommended $18.8 billion appropriation, a $1.45 billion increase over the fiscal year 2011 compromise budget.

At the same time, school districts are urged to begin implementing the new dietary guidelines, though they have not been finalized by the Agriculture Department.  The proposed guidelines were published in January, prompting more than 130,000 comments.  No date has been set for release of the final regulations.

The new guidelines call for school children to receive more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, less salt and no transfats. Along the way, the guidelines attempt to decrease the amount of fried foods – such as French fries – that many youths eat daily, upsetting the potato growers from Maine to Idaho.

But a report released today by the School Nutrition Foundation and a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts called Kids’ Safe & healthful Food Project shows a wide disparity in how close to the new standards various school programs are.

Jessica Donze Black, senior officer for the Pew Health Group, cautioned that the survey covered only small groups of school districts in three states: Georgia, Kentucky and Wisconsin, but noted that it shows the wide variation in the school districts’ current programs. She said the findings should not be generalized for the entire country.

According to the survey, in the 59 school districts in western and southwestern Wisconsin, only 7 percent report using deep fryers to prepare school meals while 77 percent provide salad bars for their students.

But in nine school districts in deep southern Georgia, seven out of eight districts that responded used deep-fryers and only three provide salad bars.  And in 15 school districts in southeastern Kentucky, nine of the 13 districts that responded to the survey use deep-dryers and just five use salad bars.

The Georgia schools estimated it would cost $393,250 to upgrade each school’s kitchen and serving facilities to meet the new dietary guidelines; Kentucky put its estimate at $75,000 and Wisconsin estimated kitchen upgrades would cost $25,000 per school.

Stimulus funds previously provided $100 million for grants to schools to upgrade their kitchens and provide staff training. Black said there were $600 million in grant applications, indicating the national need for such improvements.

The coalition had hoped to get $25 million for kitchen improvements and $10 for staff training in the 2012 budget, but none of the money is included in the markup by the House Appropriations Agriculture subcommittee.  The full committee markup is set for Wednesday.

The briefing on the new school lunch guidelines was held shortly before a more extensive briefing to Congressional members that included cooking demonstrations by teams of students who had competed to prepare the best-tasting, most balanced school lunch that cost less than $1 per person to prepare.

At the briefing, Sal Valenza, food services director of West New York School District in New Jersey, described how the district has increased the use of local produce, introduced more fruits and vegetables and whole grains and increased the participation of students who eat the school lunches.

An average of more than 31 million children ate school lunches that were reimbursable in fiscal 2010, and many of them had 50 percent or more of their food intake for the day at school.



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