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Next on the feds' menu? Overhauling school lunches.

The Obama administration is trying to improve the nutrition of school lunch menus, and it's putting at least $4.5 billion behind it.

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The Senate bill (which needs to be budget neutral) would add 6 cents to the $2.68 reimbursement rate that schools currently get from the federal government for free meals. The bill would also reduce some of the bureaucracy of the free-lunch program, which could make more money available to pay for food. But critics say the changes are not enough to pay for the fresh food and whole grains that should be in lunches.

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"People say we really need a dollar extra," says Ms. Fox. "But it's still the biggest increase in reimbursement rates we've seen since the inception of the bill."

School lunches key

No one expects improving school lunches to solve the childhood obesity issue by itself, but it is a major component.

"Something like 90 percent of kids participate in a school meal during the school year – it's a huge number," says Rob Bisceglie, executive director of Action for Healthy Kids, which works with schools to address childhood obesity.

Despite the challenges, some schools are finding ways to get better food in front of kids.

For example, more than 2,000 "farm to school" programs in all 50 states work to connect schools with local farmers and produce – a model that would get new federal support under the proposed legislation.

Within the network, many schools and districts are coming up with innovative ideas to stress healthy eating, says Deb Eschmayar, outreach director for the National Farm to School Network. They include local apple tastings, students helping to harvest and freeze strawberries for use in smoothies throughout the year, and a "Ratatouille" party – complete with a showing of the Pixar film – at which a Wisconsin school community made and froze 50 gallons of ratatouille to eat during the winter.

In St. Paul, Minn., the reforms go beyond just getting local peppers, watermelon, and lettuce onto the menus. A new "choice bar" available to all students offers fruits, veggies, cottage cheese, and a variety of salads. The food staff is also introducing less-familiar items – including jicama, edamame, and portabellas – to the menu. The district even persuaded Sara Lee to begin selling schools whole-wheat buns for hamburgers and hot dogs next fall.

Not everything works. "Beets were a disaster," says Jean Ronnei, director of Nutrition & Commercial Services for the St. Paul Public Schools. But students embraced a "smart cookie" made with flax seed, shredded carrots, whole-grain flour, oatmeal, and a few chocolate chips.

"The idea is to expose them to a lot of different things," she says.


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