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Alachua County public schools add healthier lunch options, increase cost

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More fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and no trans-fat. Those are some of the new guidelines appearing on Alachua County public school students’ lunch trays this fall.

The newer, healthier standards are being implemented as a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

The USDA has set specific guidelines for the amount of fruits, vegetables and whole grains required to call a meal complete. It has also limited the total calorie amounts of meals and adjusted them based on a student’s age.

Eunshil McKenna, the supervisor of food and nutrition services for Alachua County Public Schools, said the tiered calorie amounts were an important change.

“The point is to make sure that the children are getting appropriate calorie levels at different age groups because their needs are not the same,” McKenna said. “Let’s say for example, a kindergartner definitely would not be needing the same amount what maybe an eighth grader would get that’s very fast growing.”

With cuts to school funding and decreased physical education and athletic programs in many schools, proper nutrition is more important than ever, she said.

But while the nutritional content of the food has increased, so has the cost. This is one of the only downsides to the changes, McKenna said.

Changing food costs make it difficult to determine exactly how much the cost increase will be for the county, she said.

“We have been anticipating some of these cost increases,” she said. “We’ll probably experience a jump in our expenses in these changes, but it’s difficult to tell at the moment.”

While official numbers are still coming in from the first several weeks, overall the cost of food has increased by about 50 percent, a cost increase being absorbed by the county, she said.

McKenna attributed the large cost increase to the new fresh fruit requirement. While fresh fruit has been available before, it has never been mandatory.

Once more concrete numbers are determined, the cost could significantly impact Alachua County public school budgets, she said.

“Our staffing is based on participation of children in school meals,” she said. “We don’t normally calculate and figure out where we are until October because in the beginning of the school year it’s very hectic. We do not really know exactly how many students end up eating with us on a day-to-day basis. It’s too soon, too early for us to tell what the average is going to be for each of the school’s participation in school meals.”

In addition to the increase in food costs, school lunch prices were also raised by 15 cents this year to help with the budget, McKenna said. Schools will begin receiving an additional 6 cents in government funding beginning in October if they meet the new food requirements.

Cost wasn’t the only concern McKenna had with the new school lunch menu. She said she was also concerned about how the children would respond to some of the new foods.

But, about a month into the school year, the students are adapting to the new options.

“The children are very adaptive,” McKenna said. “So some of those that concerns we had is not necessarily becoming a very big issue. So I find that so far, so good and that children are receiving these much better nutrition products and diet on their trays and accepting them pretty well.”

Ultimately, McKenna said she feels these changes were a step in the right direction.

“As a dietitian, I have to say that the lunch meal pattern that is required of us, except for the concern for the cost issue, is a much better found nutrition pattern that we are offering the children,” she said.

Hana Engroff edited this story online.

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