Though it’s only June, Prior Lake High School junior Alex Schult is already thinking about what she’ll be eating for lunch next fall: salads, vegetables served with salt and butter, bread — not whole grain.
Since the Prior Lake-Savage school board’s recent decision to let the high school drop out of the National School Meals Program, that menu may be a reality.
Prior Lake High School is just the third Minnesota school to withdraw from the federally funded meal program, choosing to provide school breakfast and lunch all on its own. The move will let the cafeteria serve higher-calorie meals and a wider variety of foods than controversial federal nutrition rules allow. A petition by Schult and other students last fall spurred the switch.
“Mainly our students have told us they are interested in portion sizes that better meet their needs,” said Janeen Peterson, food services director in the Prior Lake-Savage district. “The school lunch program is not meant to meet the needs of very active students.”
It’s a decision that will cost the district at least $170,000 in federal and state funding during next year’s trial run. Because schools lose the federal funding when they opt out of the nutrition requirements, it’s not a decision every district can make.
Only schools with very few low-income students, like Prior Lake High, can consider opting out because they have to cover the cost of eligible students’ free and reduced price meals. The other two Minnesota schools that have left the federal program are Wayzata High School and Byron High School, west of Rochester.
“I think it has to be right for the district and I think every district that’s considering it has to … do the number crunching and make the decision from there,” said Mary Anderson, the Wayzata district’s food service director.
Nutrition directors at some schools across the country have expressed frustration with the federal school lunch program’s nutrition guidelines implemented over the past four years.
The rules restrict the amount of fat, sodium and total calories that schools can serve. They also require all grains served to be whole-grain, and stipulate that students must take a fruit or vegetable whether they want it or not.
The changes have been expensive for schools, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which is part of the reason the national association is lobbying for more flexibility and more money per meal from the federal government.
At the USDA’s last count over a year ago, about 600 schools had dropped the federal program, she said.
“We certainly have seen more schools take this route in recent years under these new nutrition standards because they have significantly increased the cost of preparing school meals and presented a number of challenges, ranging from student acceptance to menu planning,” Pratt-Heavner said.
But Minnesota has low opt-out numbers compared to the rest of the country. In Wisconsin, for instance, about 30 districts have left, said Deb Lukkonen, school nutrition program supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Education.
Noah Atlas, child nutrition director in the Anoka-Hennepin district, said he believes leaving the program has crossed the mind of every Minnesota district. But that would mean figuring out how to pay for 4,000 meals every day in Anoka-Hennepin schools, which have a 34 percent free and reduced lunch rate. It doesn’t make financial sense, he said.
In Prior Lake, the biggest complaint voiced by students and parents was about the low number of calories allowed per meal. With about 80 percent of kids involved in after school activities, they need more food, said Principal Dave Lund.
That same concern led Wayzata High to drop out after the 2013-14 school year, said Anderson.
Now, Wayzata students can choose whether to take produce, meals can have 1,000 calories instead of 750, and a student favorite — homemade macaroni and cheese — is back, she said.
“Lots of double and triple portions when that’s served,” she said.
Wayzata plans to reassess its decision to opt out of the federal program after the 2015-16 school year.
“Overall, I think it’s gone well for us,” said Anderson.
The school’s nutrition program is losing less money than it was under the federal guidelines and student participation is up 2 percent, she said.
But Byron High School, which also cited portion sizes in withdrawing from the federal program, is a different story. More students are eating lunch, but the school is losing money because of rising food costs, said Jennifer Walsh, business operations director.
“It’s a struggle,” she said. “We’re going to try it one more year.”
The districts say it’s not about being able to serve junk food, just a variety of food.
In Prior Lake, Peterson said she hopes that wider range of options — a salad bar, homemade rolls and lasagna — will entice more students to buy school lunch and snacks, making up for the lost federal funding. The district also plans to raise the price of a high school lunch by 50 cents to $2.95.
The high school isn’t trying to make a statement about the guidelines, she said, but wants to meet students’ needs.
“They’re our customers, and that’s how the world works, right?” Peterson said.