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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Fourth-grader De'Monique Causey, center, helps pass out lunch to fellow students at Washington Elementary School. Chicken and noodles, mashed potatoes, pineapple and chocolate cake were served for lunch Thursday.

Healthier lunches still on the menu at local schools despite national complaints

Although some schools around the country are opting out of the healthier new federal lunch program, at least three Allen County districts plan to stick with the new guidelines.

Some districts have complained to federal officials that so many students turned up their noses at meals packed with whole grains, fruits and vegetables, the cafeterias were losing money.

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.

Local districts said they haven't heard the sort of complaints that are being reported nationally.

"Students are always going to complain about the food," said Leeanne Koeneman, Northwest Allen County Schools food service director. "There's this stigma about school lunches."

Koeneman said her district has been working for the past few years to adjust its meals to meet federal guidelines before the changes arrived.

"We've been working on these changes, so it's not districts like ours that are having the problems with it," she said. "It's the districts that still had fryers in the schools and outsourced to companies like Arby's and Pizza Hut and let students eat that. They didn't stand a chance with these new regulations."

Last year, the district began switching out french fries for sweet potato fries – a healthier alternative to a lunchroom favorite, she said.

Krista Stockman, Fort Wayne Community Schools spokeswoman, said the district has followed a similar method of easing students into healthier meals.

"It's not a dramatic shift for us," she said. "We've been working on meeting and exceeding the requirements."

Stockman said the district has cooks who work to take students' favorite meals like macaroni and cheese and make them healthier by switching to whole-grain pasta or by using leaner meat and whole-wheat buns for sandwiches.

"The bottom line is, if it doesn't taste good, they aren't going to eat it no matter how healthy it is," Stockman said.

Stockman said FWCS has not seen a decrease in the number of students eating school meals.

Southwest Allen County Schools could not be reached for comment.

In upstate New York, a few districts have quit the program, including the Schenectady-area Burnt Hills Ballston Lake system, whose five lunchrooms ended the year $100,000 in the red.

Near Albany, Voorheesville Superintendent Teresa Thayer Snyder said her district lost $30,000 in the first three months. The program didn't even make it through the school year after students repeatedly complained about the small portions and apples and pears went from the tray to the trash untouched.

Districts that leave the program are free to develop their own guidelines.

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

The new guidelines set limits on calories and salt, phase in more whole grains and require that fruit and vegetables be served daily. A typical elementary school meal under the program consisted of whole-wheat cheese pizza, baked sweet potato fries, grape tomatoes with low-fat ranch dip, applesauce and 1 percent milk.

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.

East Allen County Schools spokeswoman Tamyra Kelly said the district would not consider opting out of the program because it would be too costly.

"EACS would have to come up with the funding for students that are on free/reduced meals which would also be extremely expensive," Kelly said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.