CAPITAL REGION Niskayuna school officials hope their cafeteria trash cans will become a little lighter.
The Board of Education on Tuesday authorized the Niskayuna Central School District to opt out of the National School Lunch Program, which will free it from the new stringent federal requirements of smaller portion sizes and more fruits and vegetables.
Food Service Director Suzanne Wixom said a lot of students are not eating the fruits and vegetables because they don’t care for them.
“It’s just going in the garbage. Until we opt out of the program, we still have to make them take a fruit or a vegetable for it to be a reimbursable meal,” she said.
The number of students buying lunch dropped from about 40 percent to 50 percent of students the previous year to 20 percent to 30 percent this year. The program is running a $59,000 deficit, according to Wixom.
“We’ve worked with vendors. We’ve gotten more people to bid on our groceries. We’ve done everything financially we can do. The cost of the food alone is hurting us,” she said.
Students complained they were hungry, according to Wixom. The new federal rules that went into effect for the 2012-2013 year require school districts to include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, offer only lower-fat milk and limit serving sizes and the amount of proteins and grains in meals. The regulations stipulate one ounce of protein for elementary school students and two ounces for high schoolers.
Wixom said the district wasn’t able to serve peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because of the restrictions. The federal government has relaxed those rules somewhat but not the total limits on calories.
Students are buying snacks and actually eating in less healthy ways, according to Wixom. The district will opt out as of April 1. In the meantime, Wixom has tweaked the menu, bringing back bagels but making them smaller.
Students will eat healthy food, according to Wixom, but they just didn’t like the meals the district had to prepare to meet the federal guidelines.
“They’re not eating the sweet potato clam chowder or whatever it is,” she said.
Matt Bourgeois, assistant superintendent for business, said he believes the program can get back to a break-even level with the change — despite the fact that the district won’t receive any reimbursement from the federal government. The program received about $150,000 in federal funding last year and the district has received about $64,000 so far this year.
He added that New York’s guidelines are still very strict so that does not mean the meals will be unhealthy.
The Voorheesville Central School District is the only other one in the Capital Region to opt out of the federal program. Superintendent Teresa Snyder said her board decided to terminate its involvement in December and it will take effect Feb. 8. Many of the students at the roughly 1,200-student district are involved in athletics and complained that the meals weren’t filling, according to Snyder.
For example, the size of the pizza serving had been reduced to about half of what one slice of a 12-cut pizza would be. Under the regulations, sandwiches with one slice of deli meat was permitted three times a week.
Football players would leave school at 2:30 p.m. and run down to the local Subway to buy a sandwich before heading to practice, according to Snyder.
“An ounce and a half of protein is not going to get them through the day,” she said. “It was really silly to continue losing tons of money, throwing away tons of produce.”
Voorheesville’s lunch program was losing money — $30,000 in the first quarter — when the percentage of students buying lunches dropped from the 60 percent to 70 percent range to approaching 40 percent.
Niskayuna school officials contacted her when they were considering opting out, according to Snyder. She said that her district is able to forgo the federal funding because it has such a low percentage of children who are on free or reduced price lunch: 5 percent and 2 percent, respectively, according to the most recent 2010-2011 data from the state Education Department. In the Niskayuna district, 6 percent of students qualify for free lunch and 2 percent for reduced price.
A high-poverty district needs the money from the federal government, Snyder added.
She said the district has a chef and is still tweaking its recipes. It will add more protein as well as restore a pizza slice to its normal size and use enriched wheat flour. The homemade soups that were popular last year will return, but lower sodium broth will be used.
“We’re using the same calorie guidelines and similar with sodium and fat,” she said.
Students in the cooking classes gave their ideas to the chef, Snyder said. “The kids are excited about food. They’re actually having input.”
Students are responding to the changes, according to Snyder.
“Kids are buying again. Every one of the a la carte menus is selling out,” she said.
Niskayuna school board member John Buhrmaster said the menu change will be a welcome one. “You’re going to be heroes among a lot of kids. We provided some great meals, very healthy. It was what the kids wanted. It wasn’t junk.”