Utah school lunches getting healthier, but pricier

Published: Thursday, Aug. 23 2012 5:51 p.m. MDT

Laura Gonzalez Mariscal, center, and Emily Enriquez, right, laugh with each other as they wait to check out during school lunch at Washington Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012. At far right is Rubi Martinez.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Students heading back to school in some districts will feel the impact of a new federal law regulating the cost and nutritional value of school lunch programs when they go to pay for their meal.

In the Salt Lake City School District, the price for elementary lunch rose 65 cents to $2, with middle school lunch increasing 80 cents to $2.30 and high school lunch increasing 65 cents from $1.85 to $2.50.

Based on a 180-day school year, high school and elementary school students who buy school lunch each day will pay $117 in additional costs for the year, with middle school students paying an additional $144.

In the Davis School District, prices have been raised by 15 cents — $1.75 for elementary students and $2.15 for secondary students — for an additional yearly cost of $27, according to district spokesman Christopher Williams.

Granite School District raised its prices by 10 cents in elementary schools, to $1.50; and 5 cents in secondary schools, to $1.65; and $1.70 for middle and high schools.

The changes were made because of provisions in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which takes effect this year. It requires schools to provide healthier lunches and match the price students pay to the amount reimbursed by the federal government for free and reduced lunches, Salt Lake City School District Child Nutrition director Kelly Orton said. 

Each district has several options to comply with the law, such as increasing the price incrementally over a number of years, Orton said. But the Salt Lake District chose to match the price immediately because of the expense of healthy foods and to hopefully avoid price increases in the future.

"Believe me, we feel for these kids," Orton said. "It's not really something we wanted to do."

The federal provision was written to stop schools from using reimbursement money to subsidize students who do not qualify for free or reduced lunch. By setting a price lower than the reimbursement level, Orton said, school districts would have excess funds intended for low-income students.

"They didn't want us to take that money and offset the paid student more than they're entitled," Orton said.

At 59.95 percent, Salt Lake City School District has one of the largest proportions of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch in Utah, according to the most recent data from the State Office of Education. In Davis District, 25.79 percent of students qualify for the program.

Statewide, 37.96 percent of public school students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

But the price increase isn't all about reimbursement. Orton said last year Salt Lake District spent $200,000 more than it received from student lunch payments because of the higher cost associated with introducing healthier items into the school lunch menu. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act includes a number of guidelines to combat childhood obesity, such as smaller portions, less desserts, whole grain foods, more fruits and vegetables and low-fat milk.

Many districts have already begun rolling out healthier lunches, with heavier price tags, but the law's guidelines take effect nationwide this academic year.

"It is a bit more expensive," Williams said of the new guidelines. "The extra funds do help us."

Williams explained that under the new guidelines, lunches are made up of five components, of which a student must choose a minimum of three. One of their choices, Williams said, must be a fruit or a vegetable.

While not all school districts have chosen to raise prices this year, all students will likely see the effect of the new guidelines when they pass through the lunch lines this fall.

Canyons School District nutrition services director Sebasthian Varas said under the new guidelines, school lunch is healthier than ever. The biggest changes, he said, are the requirement that students select a fruit or vegetable each day and and maximum serving guidelines that encourage variety throughout the week.

Canyons is one of many districts that has not raised its prices. When the district was formed in 2009, officials began incorporating whole grains and fresh produce into school lunch that satisfy the federal requirements. He said the challenge for the district is the planning and scheduling required to make sure the lunch options include all the neccessary components and that specific items aren't served too frequently.

"We're trying to make it work so (students) won't see the impact so much," he said.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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