By Sally Ho
A northwest suburban school district is quitting the National School Lunch Program over a health-focused federal policy taking effect this year that officials say likely will cause the district to lose money.
The Arlington Heights-based Township High School District 214 school board voted Thursday to cut itself loose from the U.S. Department of Agriculture program, even though the decision creates uncertainty for low-income students who rely on the program's reduced-price meals. The district will also lose a related $900,000 federal subsidy.
That dollar amount is outstripped by the $2.2 million in annual food service revenue that comes from the a la carte menu, which sells things like pizza, fries and Subway sandwiches. The district also said it gets $543,000 in revenue from vending machines.
Both revenue streams would be affected by the so-called Smart Snacks in School policy that goes into effect July 1.
Heavily endorsed by first lady Michelle Obama, the new policy marks the first time the federal food program will directly dictate nutrition for any food sold in schools during the school day -- not just the traditional lunches and breakfasts it has long subsidized.
Food from the a la carte menu in the cafeterias, as well as in vending machines and at club fundraisers will soon be subjected to strict guidelines, including restrictions on calorie, sodium, fat and sugar.
The district said it is "relatively certain" that Smart Snacks will cause it to lose more than the subsidy is worth because it only gets reimbursed for meals served.
"We could lose (money) even if we stay in if students don't purchase the food because they don't like it," said Superintendent David Schuler.
The district is instead proposing its own menu that it maintains will still be healthy. Banking on variety to draw more business and students, school officials say it will still provide free meals to the 2,800 students who qualify for the free lunch.
"We have a nutritionist who runs our food services. We're not looking at this willy-nilly," said Bill Dussling, school board president.
But the exact details of how the district will afford to opt out hasn't been revealed. The board has asked for quarterly updates on food finances.
As for the 500 students who receive reduced-priced meals, Schuler said details are still being finalized on how much they may pay next year.
The district previously said it would no longer offer reduced-price meals but have since backed away from cutting those benefits. "We're just working through it," Schuler said, adding it could take weeks before the district figures out how to deal with the varying income thresholds.
The reduced price meals were 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast under the National School Lunch Program. Full price was $3 for lunch and $1.75 for breakfast.
The new lunch menu will continue to offer basic lunches at $3 but also upgraded meals for up to 50 cents more.
George Marquez, a Wheeling High School parent, said it would hurt his family if the reduced-price meal model is significantly changed.
"It would affect me, but I'm for it," he said. "You must try something because the government can't control everything."
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