Healthy choices

November 28, 2007

A study by the University of Minnesota found that healthier school lunches don't chase away student customers and don't always cost more to provide. But while many school districts find students more receptive to nutritious meals than they might have expected, providing those meals at reasonable costs is more of a challenge. That is likely to be true in Baltimore and other Maryland districts as school budgets tighten in the next couple of years.

Nationally, the most recent survey by the School Nutrition Association, released last month, found that districts are offering more whole grain products, fruits, vegetables and other nutritious foods. But contrary to the Minnesota findings, the national survey also found that most districts were paying more, particularly in food, labor and transportation costs.

The Minnesota study looked at how well 330 of that state's school districts had complied with federal standards for calories, nutrients and fats over five years and found that student demand did not decrease in schools that offered the healthiest meals. Local districts may have been able to keep costs down through economies of scale and other efficiencies.

Like many jurisdictions around the country, Baltimore and other Maryland districts will be challenged to keep providing healthy foods while coping with increased costs. Low-fat and skim milk, whole wheat pizza crusts and fresh (rather than packaged) baked goods as well as fresh fruit and vegetables have become accepted lunch staples here, but smaller packaging for healthier processed foods such as single servings of carrots can be more expensive.

More than 60 percent of districts across the country report that reimbursements from the National School Lunch Program do not cover the full costs of producing school meals. That leaves states and localities to help make up the difference, an iffy prospect in Maryland under the recent deficit-reduction plan. But having made such strides, districts should exhaust every public and private possibility to keep students healthy while staying within their budgets.

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