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School lunch: Some schools drop federal healthy lunch program

School lunch: Complaints from kids about portion size and taste of federally approved lunch offerings are causing some schools to abandoned the federal healthy lunch program.

By Carolyn ThompsonAssociated Press / August 28, 2013

School lunch: Students are given healthy choices on a lunch line at Draper Middle School in Rotterdam, N.Y., Sept. 11, 2012. After just one year, some schools across the nation are dropping out of what was touted as a healthier federal lunch program, complaining that so many students refused the meals packed with whole grains, fruits and vegetables that their cafeterias were losing money.

AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File

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After just one year, some schools around the country are dropping out of the healthier new federal lunch program, complaining that so many students turned up their noses at meals packed with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables that the cafeterias were losing money.

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Federal officials say they don't have exact numbers but have seen isolated reports of schools cutting ties with the $11 billion National School Lunch Program, which reimburses schools for meals served and gives them access to lower-priced food.

Districts that rejected the program say the reimbursement was not enough to offset losses from students who began avoiding the lunch line and bringing food from home or, in some cases, going hungry.

"Some of the stuff we had to offer, they wouldn't eat," said Catlin, Ill., Superintendent Gary Lewis, whose district saw a 10 to 12 percent drop in lunch sales, translating to $30,000 lost under the program last year.

"So you sit there and watch the kids, and you know they're hungry at the end of the day, and that led to some behavior and some lack of attentiveness."

In upstate New York, a few districts have quit the program, including the Schenectady-area Burnt Hills Ballston Lake system, whose five lunchrooms ended the year $100,000 in the red.

Near Albany, Voorheesville Superintendent Teresa Thayer Snyder said her district lost $30,000 in the first three months. The program didn't even make it through the school year after students repeatedly complained about the small portions and apples and pears went from the tray to the trash untouched.

Districts that leave the program are free to develop their own guidelines. Voorheesville's chef began serving such dishes as salad topped with flank steak and crumbled cheese, pasta with chicken and mushrooms, and a panini with chicken, red peppers and cheese.

In Catlin, soups and fish sticks will return to the menu this year, and the hamburger lunch will come with yogurt and a banana — not one or the other, like last year.

Nationally, about 31 million students participated in the guidelines that took effect last fall under the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Dr. Janey Thornton, deputy undersecretary for USDA's Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, which oversees the program, said she is aware of reports of districts quitting but is still optimistic about the program's long-term prospects.

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