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Despite stricter standards, East Texas schools stick with federal meals program

By Bridget Ortigo
May 31, 2014 at 11 p.m.


Area school officials say economic concerns - and changing taste buds of students - are reasons they have no plans to opt out of federal healthier meal standards.

A recent Republican plan in Congress would allow some school districts to bypass the federal guidelines. It was proposed after schools complained of restrictive and costly meal plans under the standards implemented two years ago.

Also spurring the debate is a recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health that said 60 percent of vegetables and 40 percent of fruit on school lunch trays are being thrown in the trash, though the study emphasized it's not an increase since students have always discarded that high of a percentage of fruits and vegetables.

"The nutrition plan is really restrictive, and the standard requirements are getting tougher and tougher to meet versus what the kids will actually eat," Pine Tree ISD Director of Child Nutrition Michelle Mitchell said Friday.

However, she said Pine Tree ISD would not opt out of the standards because of a high percentage of students who participate in the free and reduced meal program.

"We would not be able to financially afford opting out of the meal plan," Mitchell said.

Pine Tree ISD has 2,866 students out of 4,599 - 62 percent - who receive free or reduced-cost meals.

"I would be a detriment to us to opt out," Mitchell said. "Most of the districts opting out have a low percentage of students on the free and reduced lunch program."

Mitchell said Pine Tree ISD students have a choice of what goes on their trays.

"We have offer-versus-serve, so students get to choose what they would like," Mitchell said. "If they don't want something, they don't have to take it."

Mitchell said while students get a choice, those choices are limited.

"They can choose a fruit over a vegetable, which most often do, but they must choose one or the other," Mitchell said.

While the Harvard study says the amount of fruits and vegetables eaten by students has increased since the new federal standards, the bill recently approved by a House subcommittee would allow schools to waive the standards if they have a net loss on school food programs for a six-month period.

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutrition directors and food vendors, said almost half of school meal programs reported declines in revenue in the 2012-13 school year, and 90 percent said food costs were up.

More than a million students have stopped buying school lunches since Congress approved changes to the program, according to the Agricultural Department.

Longview ISD Assistant Superintendent Lynn Marshall said the district throws away a significant amount of food every day, but the district has no plans to opt out of the healthier meal program.

"It was difficult in the first couple of years, but our younger students have come into schools and started out eating whole grains, so it's not a transition for them," Marshall said. "As a result, we've seen less waste."

Longview ISD served about 5,700 plate lunches per day - or lunches about for 70 percent of its students - in the past school year.

Longview ISD Child Nutrition Director Phyllis Dozier said the district successfully experimented with fresh-cut fruits instead of whole fruit options.

"It looks better, tastes better and portions are smaller, so students are eating them," Dozier said.

Gladewater ISD Director of Child Nutrition Darla Allen said the district has no plans to opt out of the healthier meal plan, but that could change.

"We would have to look at the last six months to see if we are losing money, but it would be something that I think our district would look into," Allen said.

Gladewater ISD served about 1,000 students per day on the lunch program during the 2013-14 school year.

"It is very hard to meet the requirements of the current nutrition program with something that the kids will eat," Allen said.

Allen said the students throw away a good portion of fruits and vegetables because the list of approved items is so restrictive that they get tired of the limited choices.

"The sodium and grains are big things because when you start taking sodium out of the grains, the food is not that good," Allen said. "The manufacturers are trying to keep up with the regulations and make the food taste good, but the meal patterns we have this year will lower the sodium even more."

Hallsville ISD did not have numbers for students participating in the lunch program, but Director of Food Services Marci Rutland said the district will not opt out of the federal meal plan.

<em>- The Associated Press contributed to this report.</em>

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