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With Fewer Kentucky Students Getting School Meals, New Nutrition Standards Can Pose Challenges

Since the U.S. Agriculture Department’s new school meal requirements were implemented in 2012, the cost for Jefferson County Public Schools to provide fresh produce has doubled, said Julia Bauscher, the district’s director of school and community nutrition services.Bauscher said managing the food cost surge is “a challenge”—but for JCPS it’s manageable.Smaller school districts, however, may be facing more daunting financial circumstances when it comes to incorporating the new school meal standards into cafeterias, Bauscher said.For that reason, Bauscher—who is also president-elect of the 55,000 member School Nutrition Association—is urging federal lawmakers to allow some school districts to apply for a one-year waiver that will give school officials more time to better prepare for the federally mandated nutrition guidelines.Under a proposal from the School Nutrition Association, school meal programs that operate at a net loss for at least six months may apply for the waiver before fully implementing the standards. Related: How Some Louisville Kids Get Nutritious Meals While School's OutThe waiver is a part of the U.S. House's 2015 Agriculture spending bill that was approved in May by the House Appropriations Committee, which is chaired by Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican.The full House is expected to vote on the bill in the coming week.Nutrition standards  set to take effect in July will require schools to shift to 100 percent whole-grain rich products and significantly reduce the amount of sodium served for lunch and breakfast.These standards are in addition to regulations already in place that require students take a fruit or veggie, and for schools to provide fat-free or low-fat milk and limit the amount of saturated fats in school meals.Bauscher said the influx of changes to nutrition standards is leaving some school districts with the responsibility of charting a new course when it comes to feeding students.“Until districts have a chance to catch up and kids’ palates have a chance to catch up, let’s slow down a little bit, let’s take a brief pause,” she said.And it’s not just rising food costs that have nutrition professionals concerned.  Getting students to actually eat the food once it’s on their plate is also proving to be difficult.A recent study of elementary schools showed that the amount of fresh fruit being thrown away, instead of being eaten, has increased 100 percent, resulting in nearly $3.8 million worth of fresh produce being tossed, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association.Student participation in school meal programs has also been declining since the standards have been in place.In Kentucky, the number of students participating in school lunch programs has been declining since 2009, when just more than 570,000 students participated, according to data from the USDA.  In 2013, that number had shrunk to nearly 532,000.“These are major concerns for a lot of school districts,” Bauscher said.But all of this isn’t to say the standards should be abandoned, she added.“We just want to make sure that all districts can be fiscally strong so they can be able to continue to participate in the program and provide healthy school meals to all of their students.”Bauscher said she doesn’t expect JCPS to apply for a waiver if it is made available.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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