Nearly 40 percent of Minnesota school districts have squandered an opportunity to receive thousands of dollars in federal funding this year by putting off a mandatory survey detailing what’s in school lunches.

Last summer, school districts statewide were given a homework assignment: As part of the federal Hunger-Free Kids Act, they were told to provide detailed descriptions of school lunches, with the results due by the end of this school year. The payoff for breaking down calories and carbohydrates is a 6-cent federal reimbursement for every lunch served, with a district to start getting the money as soon as it finishes the analysis. The federal payments will continue into the foreseeable future.

For the Anoka-Hennepin district, which completed the survey at the start of the school year, the reimbursement will exceed $264,000 this year. But as of early April, survey results from only 60 percent of the state’s school districts had been forwarded to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Debra Lukkonen, supervisor of school nutrition for the Minnesota Department of Education.

Most metro-area districts, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, have turned in surveys. But many school nutrition staffs in the state are strapped — with food directors wearing chef’s hats — and will not have time to complete the work until the school year ends, Lukkonen said. For others, the paperwork is complicated, so time-consuming that Lukkonen says the state has offered to help the struggling districts.

These districts will still get the federal reimbursement once they fulfill the requirement, but only for meals they serve after doing so — not retroactively.

Setting priorities

“We all want that six cents with costs going up, but our top priority is making sure our kids are well fed, and not doing paperwork,” said Sandy Schultz, food services manager for the Brooklyn Center School District, one of 160 Minnesota schools or school districts that have not turned in their surveys.

“The state keeps calling, giving me deadlines. It will get done — sooner instead of later, I hope. But we can only do so many things at a time.”

Minnesota schools lose an average of 29 cents per lunch and some lose much more, Lukkonen said. In Anoka-Hennepin, the $2.98 cost of a lunch includes the meal, labor and overhead, said Patty Duenow, the district’s assistant nutrition director. The bigger school districts can make up for lost revenue by selling à la carte items, which Anoka-Hennepin does. Some districts count on a general education fund to bail them out.

“Every school district, regardless of size, is fighting the same battle,” Duenow said. “We all could use help.”

The amount of federal help through reimbursement is determined by the number of meals sold. St. Paul, which completed the process early, will receive $300,000 this year, said Jean Ronnei, the district’s director of nutrition.

For Chisago Lakes, which hopes to complete its paperwork this month, the future annual payoff will be almost $20,000, said Kathy Burrill, food services director. Brooklyn Center can expect more than $12,000. But some small rural districts could receive as little as $300 — hardly enough to inspire them to get the USDA assignment completed until after the school year, said Lukkonen.

The Mankato School District will receive $60,000 annually when it completes the forms. But like Brooklyn Center’s Schultz, food service director Ron Schirmers talks of competing demands and priorities. “We’re more interested in getting our menus in line — and getting kids to eat off those menus,” he said.

“I’ve just gotten started filling out these forms,” Schirmers said. “It takes time.”

Goal of the survey

St. Paul’s Ronnei, who this fall will become vice president of the national School Nutrition Association, said the USDA’s goal is to ensure that school districts are complying with national standards.

“It’s a requirement, plain and simple, but it’s also a huge deal,” Ronnei said of the federal survey. “It benefits the kids. It validates this process of trying to provide nutritionally sound meals.”

The assignment calls for documentation of every lunch at all school levels — of the ingredients that go into everything from an entree to that last condiment packet, said Allison Bradford, child nutrition programs director at Anoka-Hennepin.

The USDA wants to ensure that the districts are complying with new federal nutrition standards. The schools need to be examining calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium, Lukkonen said.

Earlier this week, the Anoka-Hennepin district served its most popular meal at its middle schools: popcorn chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy with herbed carrot slices. Students can be served an unlimited amount of fruits and vegetables, said Duenow. But healthy guidelines dictate the size of snack portions, the amount of grainy foods served per meal, even the color of vegetable.

Duenow said it took her five days to complete the federal survey. Every food item had to be entered into a multi-tabbed spreadsheet. When a rule stated that a child needed eight to nine “breads” per week, that could mean grains and foods such as pasta, crackers, pizza crust and hamburger buns, Duenow said.

“This has been a learning year for all of us,” Duenow said. “The state has been good about saying what needs to be fixed for next year.”

The process, she said, was not that hard to digest.

“We passed.”