As students snagged apples, grabbed milk cartons and carried away pepperoni pizza in the multipurpose room at Lichen K-8 school in Citrus Heights, fourth-grader Alivia Sowles wasn’t interested.
“I make my lunch,” said Alivia, 10. She recited her favorites, including a turkey sandwich with mayonnaise, chips and juice. “I feel like there’s no flavor” to the lunches sold at school, she said.
The San Juan Unified School District wants to change that perspective. Ever since the federal government required four years ago that schools serve healthier food – less sodium, more whole grains, more fresh produce – districts across the country have observed a marked drop in the number of students getting their lunch at the cafeteria.
“We are seeing a decline in participation overall through all segments, free and reduced-price lunches and paid,” said Monique Stovall, San Juan’s director of nutrition services. “In our district, we’ve implemented an initiative to increase participation. We want to let people know more and to ask, ‘Why aren’t you eating with us?’ ”
Bringing lunch isn’t always an easy option; about 52 percent of San Juan’s 40,000 students last year qualified for free or reduced-price meals based on low household income. The district this year is on course to serve about 600,000 fewer lunches to those students than it did last year, according to a report Stovall provided district trustees this week.
Schools nationally began phasing in provisions of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2012. A year later, the average daily student participation rate for total lunches served began falling. A year ago, it had declined by about 1.2 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
California also underwent a decline in the comparison, from 3.4 million in fiscal year 2012 to 3.3 million in fiscal year 2014, according to the USDA data.
Taste played a role, according to Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, an advocacy group that represents school food officials. Reduced sodium can affect the taste of foods, for example, as can whole grains in items such as biscuits, tortillas and bagels.
“This particular issue is impacting the program at a time when costs to prepare meals to meet the (federal) standards have increased dramatically,” Pratt-Heavner said.
A 2015 association survey showed the effects were widespread.
“There is strong consensus as to the leading reason for the decline in lunch (average daily participation): decreased student acceptance of meals,” the association wrote in its 2015 Trends Report. That reason was cited by nearly 93 percent of school meal officials who saw a drop in student participation, according to the survey of 1,100 school districts.
Alivia’s mother, Shelby Zimmerman, said she’s happy that her daughter brings her own lunch now.
“She used to buy lunch a few years ago and she’d come home starving,” Zimmerman said. “This way, she’s packing everything and getting what she wants.”
To win students back, San Juan is planning “food tastings” for parents and students during events such as open house and back-to-school nights. It is piloting new entrees at elementary schools to see which might muster increased interest in the meals, Stovall said.
“My team and I do the best we can with the resources we have,” she said. “Unfortunately, many of our students are not used to or don’t like the taste of whole grain items. Since USDA requires that all of the grains in our products are whole grain, these students are turned off by the taste of some of our menu options.”
Recently, she said, the district has begun experimenting with herbs such as garlic, basil and parsley “to see if we can enhance the taste of our menu options.”
On the federal level, the School Nutrition Association is advocating for more flexibility in federal nutrition standards, backing a U.S. Senate measure that would postpone another sodium reduction scheduled for 2017 and allow enriched grains to be substituted for whole grains about 20 percent of the time.
While schools are required to offer more fresh produce than ever before, they also face higher food costs as a result. Food service officials say they are getting squeezed by labor costs as well.
The San Juan district has dipped into nutrition service reserves to vanquish a $1.5 million three-year budget shortfall. Later this month, trustees will decide whether to raise prices 25 cents for students who don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The costlier meals, which would start in the fall, would counter rising costs for labor as well as food, tied in part to federal mandates for healthier fare, Stovall said.
The Elk Grove Unified School District, citing a double-digit rise in food costs that started in 2012-13, is moving ahead with meal price increases of 25 cents this fall. The increase would generate about $400,000 next year. This year, the number of meals sold overall has been relatively flat, said Michelle Drake, the district’s director of food and nutrition services.
About 54 percent of the district’s nearly 63,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
On May 3, Drake outlined her recommendations to trustees. Besides the 25-cent price increase, she recommended some $900,000 in cost reductions, including closing a cafe at the district’s student support center on Gerber Road, finding “creative ways” to use processed foods and in some cases substituting canned items and juices for fresh produce.
The plan also calls for a $1.2 million infusion from the general fund to help support a projected $2 million shortfall in food services funding in the next school year. The proposals won an informal nod from board members, according to a YouTube video of the meeting. But trustee Beth Albiani was among several who voiced disappointment over using processed and canned foods.
“It does make me sad to think that we are going to be reducing fresh produce and selections,” Albiani said during the meeting.
San Juan Current / Proposed
Elementary $1.75 / $2
Secondary $2 / $2.25
Elementary $2.75 / $3
Secondary $3.25 / $3.50
Elk Grove Current / Proposed
Elementary $1.50 / $1.75
Secondary $1.75 / $2
Elementary $2.50 / $2.75
Secondary $3 / $3.25
Source: San Juan Unified and Elk Grove Unified school districts