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Student meals to get healthier

Children eat lunch last week at Longfellow Elementary School in Mitchell during the summer lunch program. School lunch programs are coming under federal requirements to be healthier because of the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. (Chris Huber/Republic)

The Mitchell School District is ahead of the curve with nutritious lunches, said Food Service Director Sean Moen, but new federal rules effective July 1 will require all school districts to bump up their nutritional game plans.

In 1946-1947, its first year of operation, the National School Lunch Program, which was created to combat malnutrition following World War II, served 7.1 million children at a cost of $70 million. The program now serves about 31 million kids in 101,000 schools nationally. In fiscal year 2010, the program cost $10.8 billion.

"It's been years since food service regulations have changed, and some are past due," Moen said.

New food rules under the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 will this year require schools to:

• Double the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables served daily;

• Make sure that at least 50 percent of bread products served are whole grain (and 100 percent by 2013-2014)

• Start reducing the amount of sodium served, and achieve a 50 percent reduction in 10 years.

The lunch program -- which makes free or reduced cost lunches available to nearly half of Mitchell's elementary students and 40 percent of middle school kids -- also requires that school lunches meet specific dietary guidelines.

For instance, no more than 30 percent of calories can come from fat and less than 10 percent of that from saturated fat.

Actual K-12 school menu guidelines are more detailed, of course, and are age and grade specific.

The new rules are aimed at reducing the growing epidemic of childhood obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years.

While Moen believes the higher nutrition goals of the new program are long overdue, they will be expensive for school districts and will eventually cost an additional 42 to 60 cents a plate over the 10-year time frame of implementation.

Meeting the first stages of the new rules will cost Mitchell about 30 cents a meal next year, Moen said. He does not know the total cost of the changes yet.

"It's not a bad thing, but financially it's not good for any school district," he said. "They're telling us we have to serve more and do more; however, they're only going to give us 6 cents more per plate in reimbursement, when the costs will go up about 42 cents. You're going backward on every plate."

That will require tightening operations to make things work, Moen said.

To prepare for the new requirements, feds told schools in the lunch program to raise regular lunch prices by 10 cents. Reduced prices to students who qualify for the reductions will remain at their current rates. In Mitchell, that will raise about $37,000 more to help offset expenses associated with the new program.

The extra 6 cents will be given only when school menus that incorporate the new guidelines are approved by the state of South Dakota. Those menus must be in by Oct. 1.

Schools will be in session before that date, explained Moen, but the menu certification requirements were only recently released.

"It's going to cause a huge burden on the state to certify all menus statewide," he said.

Meanwhile, Moen and his staff have been busy administering a booming summer lunch program at Longfellow Elementary School. The program -- which gives a free meal to kids 18 and younger, and $3.25 meals to adults -- had 80 kids when Moen started with the district eight years ago and it now serves nearly 500 kids on a daily basis. The program operates weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and ends July 31.

"Response has been unbelievable," he said, and he hopes next year's lunch program will get a similar reaction.

"We're trying to combat obesity and our meals are healthy here. We're right on track for the new program, and we're not worried about meeting the new requirements."

But Moen is a bean counter in more than one way.

Current lunch rules require one-half to three-quarters of a cup of fruit and vegetables a day; the new program menu calls for three-quarters to one cup of vegetables plus one-half to one cup of fruit a day. New rules also call for weekly menus with dark green, leafy vegetables and red and orange veggies, peas and beans, and more.

Moen is worried the rules could result in more waste.

"You can give kids more veggies, but whether or not they eat them remains to be seen," he said, noting that kids will still have the same 22-minute time slot to eat their meals.

"There's a lot of need out there and we're going to do everything we can to make eating in school the best possible experience," he said.