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Complying with federal school lunch rules could be costly and challenging in Willmar

WILLMAR -- Willmar's schools are on the road to complying with proposed federal guidelines for school lunches.

But the Willmar School Board learned Monday that getting the rest of the way could be difficult if the final version of the guidelines is the same as the proposal.

Willmar students already eat brown rice and whole grain bread and pasta, Food Service Director Annette Derouin said at a board workshop Monday. Students receive fresh fruits and vegetables at meals and as snacks.

However, cutting the sodium content nearly in half will be a challenge, Derouin said, and some of the changes could be expensive.

The new nutritional guidelines for school lunches are the first rewrite in more than a decade, Derouin said. The guidelines are intended to address issues with child obesity and health.

In addition to serving whole grains and limiting fat, the calorie content of the district's meals falls within the range listed in the guidelines.

Derouin said she was concerned that some of the other changes that might be required could be hard to implement and could reduce participation in the lunch program.

"It could be a huge challenge to meet the standards and make something the kids will eat," she said.

The guidelines limit starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn and green peas to one cup a week.

The place that will be most difficult will be in the grill line at the senior high where potato products are a popular choice, Derouin said.

The guidelines also require two servings of vegetables at lunch, Derouin said, a change that could be costly and a challenge to serve, especially at the elementary level. Dark leafy green and orange vegetables will have to be included in the choice.

More beans and legumes will also be required.

Derouin said she wasn't sure how to get younger kids to eat a lot more beans or orange vegetables. At one point, she looked at the board members and said, "If you have any ideas, let me know."

Another requirement in the guidelines is to close the gap between the government subsidy for free and reduced-price meals and what other students pay. In Willmar, the federal subsidy is $2.72, and the meal cost for others is about $1.90.

"That could be a huge issue for the board," said board member Linda Mathiasen.

Derouin said the district has tried to keep its lunch prices reasonable and has not raised them every year.

Districts that comply with all the new guidelines could receive a subsidy of 6 cents per meal, about $34,000 a year for Willmar.

Board member Dan Croonquist asked how much it would cost to comply with the guidelines.

"We don't know yet," she said. Board member Sandi Unger pointed out that the district might not get the entire $34,000 if fewer meals are served.

In an update on the district's wellness policy, Derouin ran down some statistics for the district's food program, which served 1,164,443 meals in the past school year. That includes breakfasts, lunches and food at school functions.

The program also provided nearly 46,000 cartons of milk for kindergarten milk breaks and nearly 19,000 snacks for students attending after-school activities.

The district served nearly 570,000 lunches and 387,000 breakfasts. Participation in the lunch program was high -- 96 percent in grades K-5, 94 percent in grades 6-8 and 80 percent in grades 9-12.

Derouin said the participation is "very high for a senior high" and indicates that the program serves food the students want to eat. Participation is lower in the breakfast program, where all students in grades K-8 are offered a free breakfast.

More than 51 percent of the district's students qualified for free or reduced-price meals last year, she said.

The School Board implemented a policy of not allowing families to charge meals if their lunch accounts ran out of money. The Cardinal Care Fund was established and accepts donations to help pay for children's lunches, and that has worked well, Derouin said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340