School lunch trend seen in schools locally, nationally
While each local school district is experiencing a similar drop in its lunch program sales, Southern Columbia Area is the only one discussing the option of opting out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
However, Nancy Kohl, vice president of The Nutrition Group, said approximately 10 percent of the 140 districts contracted with the food service provider have asked them to consider what it would take to discontinue the new federal guidelines and forgo federal reimbursement.
Districts they service have experienced a noticeable drop - between 10 and 12 percent on average - in paid meals, she said.
The Nutrition Group, a full-service food and facilities management company founded in 1975, is contracted with Line Mountain, Mount Carmel Area and Shamokin Area.
The Associated Press reported in August that school districts across the nation were planning to drop out of the lunch program, but federal officials said they didn't have the exact numbers.
The School Nutrition Association found that 1 percent of 521 district nutrition directors surveyed over the summer planned to drop out of the program in the 2013-14 school year and about 3 percent were considering the move, the Associated Press reported.
Nationally, about 31 million students participated in the guidelines that took effect last fall.
Reimbursement at risk
The consideration to opt out of the program is driven by the number of students eligible for free and reduced lunches, Kohl said.
"Districts that have a high percentage aren't discussing going off the program. You jeopardize that (reimbursement). Do you take the program away or subsidize? Neither one is favorable. Districts who do this are usually more affluent," she said.
Based on data from the state Department of Education for the 2011-12 school year, Mount Carmel Area and Shamokin Area ranked 55th and 56th respectively in the state with 59.5 percent of its student population considered low income, Line Mountain ranked 252nd in the state with 38.4 percent and Southern Columbia Area ranked 364th with 28.4 percent.
At this point, however, with only one year under each district's belt with the guidelines, it does not make sense to opt out, Kohl said.
While Southern's lunch program dropped significantly, the other local school districts were not hit nearly as hard.
At Line Mountain, the number of meals served dropped 12,610 from 164,413 in 2011-12 to 151,803 in 2012-13, and their overall expenditures for the lunch program, including meals and employee costs, dropped by $14,498 from $607,217 in 2011-12 to $592,719 in 2012-13.
At Mount Carmel, the number of meals served dropped 3,323, from 222,046 in 2011-12 to 218,723 in 2012-13, and revenue for meals sold dropped $3,526.70, from $145,751.50 in 2011-12 to $142,224.80 in 2012-13.
Shamokin's numbers were not made available by press time.
Appealing to kids
The biggest problem students have is the transition to whole grain and the smaller portion sizes. Plus, most of the district had to raise their prices to help cover the costs, she said.
"You're paying more and getting less food that you don't want," Kohl said in describing the students' mindset.
Whole grain chicken breading and whole grain soft pretzels do not "sound appealing to a kid," said Mount Carmel Area Superintendent Bernie Stellar, but the food service has been "creative" in making the meals.
"They have worked hard to listen to the wishes of the kids and stay within the guidelines," he said.
Stellar said the addition of certain spices have helped as well as the placement of certain fruits and vegetables in the lines.
"We don't necessarily agree with all of the grant requirements, but we're abiding by them, of course," he said.
Shamokin Area Superintendent James Zack directed questions to Kohl, and Line Mountain Superintendent Dave Campbell was unable to be reached for comment.
Furthermore, requests for further information from USDA's Office of Communications and the state Department of Education's Office of Press and Communications were not returned.
A la carte items
In this current school year, the guidelines are also changing for a la carte meal items. The caloric intake will be monitored and drinks will be limited to water, milk and juice.
A la carte meal items, which are any extra options after the main meal, includes extra slices of pizza, snacks or beverages.
"These are things they (school districts) were allowed to sell before, and they won't be able to sell now. As their revenue drops, I think there will be more discussion. We don't know what's going to happen," Kohl said.