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Local school systems sticking with federal healthier lunch program

September 1st, 2013 5:52 pm by Rick Wagner

Local school systems sticking with federal healthier lunch program

KINGSPORT — Although some school districts across the United States are leaving or considering withdrawing from the federal healthier lunch program, officials in three local hereystems said they have no plans to do that.

Despite a drop in participation in school meals, officials in Kingsport, Sullivan County and Hawkins County school systems said they are staying put in the federal program.

A recent article by The Associated Press reported that 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.

To view the AP article, go to here or look for it under the “Education” tab at

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

The School Nutrition Association recently found that 1 percent of 521 district nutrition directors surveyed over the summer planned to drop out of the program in the 2013-14 school year and about 3 percent were considering the move.

Parents and students in local systems complained last year the healthier fare was unappetizing and lacked enough calories for those in athletics, band and other physical activities.

According to AP, 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. Others, the districts said, would load up on junk food at a nearby convenience story after school.

“That’s certainly a choice, but we can’t control that,” said Jennifer Burleson, director of school nutrition for Kingsport City Schools. “We’re not considering withdrawing at this point.” 

Burleson said she believes the city system fared better than some other systems because it started introducing more vegetables and fruits. whole grain items, low fat items and other healthier fare years before the mandate hit in 2012-13.

“It makes a difference if students don’t eat that item at home,” Burleson said.

In a nutshell, she said the requirements are: 

•Elementary calories 550-650, Middle calories 600-700, High school calories 750-850. These are lunch averages over a five-day week) 

•Must offer a half cup of dried beans weekly.

•All grains offered must be whole grain by 2014-15; currently half of grains offered for breakfast and lunch must be whole grain, 

•Must offer three-fourths  cup of red or orange vegetables to elementary and middle students weekly and one and a fourth cup to high school students weekly.

•Must offer half a cup of dark green vegetable to all students weekly.

•All milk must be low fat unflavored or fat free flavored or unflavored.

The city system saw a 5 percent decline in school meal participation from 2011-12 and 2012-13, but she said most of that has leveled out.

Sullivan County School Nutrition Manager Lisa Holt could not be reached for comment this past week, but other officials in nutrition and with the school system said they knew of no plans to abandon or consider abandoning the federal school meal program.

Mandy Kenner, director of child nutrition for Hawkins County schools, said that school system saw a “slight decrease” in participation but that like Kingsport, that has since rebounded some and the system is not considering opting out of the system.

“It’s (eating habits) not something that can be changed overnight. The reason behind it was to battle childhood obesity, which is considered an epidemic,” Kenner said. “It’s a lifestyle change.” 

Since the start of last school year, Kenner and Burleson said they have tweaked their menu offerings to include healthier fare students will eat and reduce or eliminate less popular items.

“We are trying this year to give the students back the (healthier) things they like,” Kenner said.

As for athletes, band members and other with higher caloric needs, Burleson and Kenner said they can purchase extra items at school or bring snacks and other food to fill the void.

“I would hope they are packing something to fill their high-calorie needs,” Burleson said. “The USDA has developed these guidelines to meet average calorie needs.” 

Kenner agreed.

 “We all offer healthy snacks, if they (students) want to purchase them,” Kenner said.

Burleson and Kenner said the double financial whammy of the new program is that healthier foods are more expensive and, in some cases, were not all available as food providers had to retool their offerings.

However, most local Northeast Tennessee systems except Kingsport and Washington County, Tenn., are in NETCO, a school food service cooperative. The 14 systems serve an average of 50,000 students per day with an annual food budget of more than $6 million. Formed in 1997, it comprises the school systems of Bristol, Tenn., Carter County, Cocke County, Greene County, Greeneville, Hamblen County, Hawkins County, Jefferson County, Johnson City, Johnson County, Newport, Rogersville, Sullivan County and Unicoi County.

Aside from nutrition-versus-taste concerns, the AP story said not every district can afford to quit. The National School Lunch Program provides cash reimbursements for each meal served: about $2.50 to $3 for free and reduced-priced meals and about 30 cents for full-price meals. That takes the option of quitting off the table for schools with large numbers of poor youngsters.

Kenner and Burleson said that is one reason dropping out would not be a good financial option for local systems, even if other aspects of the program were found to be lacking.

In December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, responding to complaints that kids weren’t getting enough to eat, relaxed the 2-ounce-per-day limit on grains and meats while keeping the calorie limits.

Two Kingsport Times-News reporters last year ate lunch with and interviewed students in the Sullivan County and Kingsport school systems, and students gave the offerings a mixed rating. To read that Oct. 7, 2012, article, go here on

The Sullivan school board also has heard from folks not happy with the school lunch changes. To read a Oct. 1, 2012, article from that meeting, go here on

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