By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
updated 2/21/2011 7:29:02 AM ET 2011-02-21T12:29:02

At the turn of the new year, the Lee County, Fla., public schools were losing about $2,000 a week on school lunches. Then came the cheese sandwiches.

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When classes resumed Jan. 3 after the winter break, the district — the 40th-largest in the United States, with about 80,000 pupils — had a problem. Up to 1,100 pupils weren't paying for their meals, school officials say.

Because the National School Lunch Program, or NSLP, requires participating schools to provide nourishing meals for all pupils, what do school administrators do if a pupil shows up in the lunchroom with no cash and with no money left in his or her electronic meal account?

Most raise their prices for kids who can pay, according to research by the nonprofit School Nutrition Association, which found that nearly 60 percent of public school districts raised lunch prices in 2009, the last full year for which national figures were available.

The Agriculture Department — which administers the NSLP — says roughly two-thirds of the 5 billion meals served under the program each year are free or are sold at a reduced price. That means you can't keep raising meal prices indefinitely, because the burden is disproportionally borne by the pupils who buy the one-third of meals sold at full price.

Solving that conundrum is especially urgent now because new federal school nutrition regulations in the works could soon require schools to serve more — and more expensive — fresh produce, lean meats and whole grains.

Here's the option they hit upon in Lee County, one that's similar to steps being taken in an increasing number of schools across the country: Kids who can't pay get one free hot lunch. After that, they get a bare-bones "alternate meal." In Lee County, it's a cheese sandwich and a 4-ounce juice box. Take it or leave it.

It's not as coldhearted as it might sound at first.

Eligibility for the subsidized lunch program is based on family income. Since the economy went into recession, millions of families have fallen below the government poverty line for the first time. But many of them apparently have no idea they're eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches.

Moreover, there's a significant "stigma associated with participation" in some communities, especially among older teenagers, the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service found in a 2008 report.

While there's no hard data on how many eligible families aren't enrolled, those factors mean "the NSLP faces the constant challenge of encouraging eligible households to apply for participation," the report said.

If a school can get more eligible children enrolled, its direct costs go down because the federal government picks up more of the bill. Slenderized lunches, administrators say, are simply part of an aggressive campaign to make families aware of the benefit and get them signed up.

"If they need assistance, we give them assistance," said Wayne Nagy, the Lee County district's food and nutrition services director. But "if they don't need assistance, we expect them to pay."

Within two weeks of instituting the new rule, Lee County schools had cut their losses on unpaid meals by 80 percent, Nagy said. Nearly 750 pupils signed up for free or reduced-price meals, the district reported, and now the district serves an average of only two alternate lunches a day at each of the system's 87 schools.

'Alternative lunches' spread the bland
School menus are decided at the local level, and there's no national menu database, so it's impossible to calculate how many schools downgrade meal options for pupils who struggle to pay. It's not clear that the schools that do so are even a statistically significant proportion of the 100,000 or so schools in the National School Lunch Program.

But a search of online school lunch menus found that "alternate" or "alternative" lunches of a sandwich (usually cheese or peanut butter) along with juice or milk were being served this month in public school districts in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington state.

Strictly speaking, the lunches meet current federal guidelines because they offer at least a quarter of the recommended daily calorie intake made up of grains, protein and dairy. But that doesn't mean they're filling or appetizing.

In December, the Harrison Hills City School District of Ohio, which was in the hole for $9,000 in unpaid meals, began offering two slices of bread, a slice of cheese and a small milk carton to pupils who couldn't pay and weren't in the free or reduced-price program.

"That's ridiculous that they just give us that to eat," said Sarah Barger, 18, a student at Harrison Central High School.

Things are a little better in the Homewood City, Ala., schools, where kids get fruit to go with their sandwich and milk. It's a veritable feast compared to the alternative lunch they got last school year, when parents complained about the spare offering of crackers, cheese and milk.

"Well, we will not let a child go hungry in Homewood. It's our job to feed children," said Carolyn Keeney, director of child nutrition for the Homewood City School District.

But "if they owe money or they don't have money in their lunch account, they're not allowed to get any extra items," said Keeney, whose meal program was honored last year by the Agriculture Department's Healthier U.S. Schools program.

(Don't even think about dessert. As the Northern Bedford County, Pa., School District notes: "A dessert is not a NSLP required component and is not included in the alternate lunch.")

School officials stress that they're not trying to punish anyone. If there are pupils who can't afford their lunches, schools want to get them into the NSLP free/reduced-priced program, in which they're guaranteed two nutritious meals a day, paid for in part or in whole by the federal government.

"This is an issue we're trying to resolve," said Michael Cook, a spokesman for the Las Cruces, N.M., Public School District, which he said was trying to make certain that any student who can't afford the main meal on the menu "is served some kind of alternative" rather than go hungry.

The struggle to make ends meet will become even more important if school nutrition regulations being considered by the Agriculture Department go into effect. The department is accepting public comments through April on a proposal announced last month that would require school meals to reduce sodium by half, serve more vegetables and whole grains, limit saturated fats and switch to low-fat milk and dairy products.

Almost universally, nutritionists and dietitians praise the idea behind the proposal.

"This generation is not expected to have a life expectancy as long as their parents," said Jessica Yonally, a dietitian with the Capital District Child Care Council in Albany, N.Y. — almost solely because of obesity and chronic diseases associated with "the lack of vitamins coming from whole foods like fruits and vegetables and whole grains."

Lunchroom ladies say 'show us the money'
And yet several education groups oppose the new regulations. While they acknowledge research that good nutrition boosts school performance, they say the rules would increase their meal program costs — which were already ranked the No. 1 problem by 77 percent of school food directors in a survey by the School Nutrition Association.

Calculations by the nonprofit National School Boards Association suggest the guidelines could add 11 cents to 25 cents per meal; the new rules, by contrast, would raise the federal reimbursement by only 6 cents.

"There are basic things we have to realize, like in winter you can't get fresh fruits and vegetables except at a premium cost," said David A. Little, director of government relations for the New York State School Boards Association.

Linda Muldoon, director of food services for the Hamburg Central School District in New York, said there were other factors, too, such as the need for new storage systems for more perishable fresh produce and meats. Those costs aren't accounted for in the federal guidelines or in the legislation that prompted the review, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which President Barack Obama signed in December.

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"Sometimes, what looks good on paper doesn't work on the ground," said Katherine Shek, a legislative analyst for the National School Boards Association, which praised Obama's commitment to school nutrition but joined two other national education advocacy groups — the American Association of School Administrators and the Council of the Great City Schools — in opposing the legislation.

Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the school boards association, said it was "disappointing" that the law "does not provide adequate funding," which she said would "challenge schools' ability to provide school nutrition by adding a new funding burden for schools at a time when there are critical budget shortfalls."

For administrators, that's the dilemma. They want to serve their pupils nutritious meals, but they also don't want to run a deficit or take money from academic programs to do it.

"We really wanted to work hard in reducing that debt," said Eric McFee, principal of Cape Coral High School in Lee County, the Florida district where the cheese sandwiches are providing a quick fix.

All things considered, he said, "debt-wise and kids being responsible — it's absolutely the best."

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