As the lunches at Fort Thomas Independent Schools in northern Kentucky have grown healthier, fewer students are choosing to eat them. For that reason the school district has chosen to opt out of the federal school lunch program that mandates the healthier foods but also provides thousands of dollars in federal funding.
“The calorie limitations and types of foods that have to be provided ... have resulted in the kids just saying ‘I'm not going to eat that,’” Fort Thomas Superintendent Gene Kirchner recently told USA Today.
Opting out of the program means Kirchner’s district will walk away from about $200,000 of federal money this year and up to $260,000 in future years.
“We watch children every day walk past the cash register and then throw away things that we are forced, have forced them to take essentially, as a result of the federal requirements for lunches,” Kirchner told WLWT.
But it’s not just the wastefulness that upsets Kirchner and other school officials; some students just aren’t buying the food, choosing instead to bring their own lunches or skip the meal altogether.
When the schools are unable to sell the lunches they are providing, they must recoup the loss by dipping into the general fund and using money that could be used for textbooks or technology.
Kirchner said he hopes the district will be able to make up the money it is losing from the federal government by selling lunches the students actually want to eat.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that runs the program for the federal government, said in September that less than 1 percent of the schools it surveyed had opted out of the federal program.
School districts with poorer student populations typically stay in the program because it covers the costs of federally mandated free lunches.
Fort Thomas Independent Schools will still provide free lunches but will be forced to cover the costs internally. The district only has about 17 percent of its students receiving free lunches.
Jessica Shelly, food service director at nearby Cincinnati Public Schools, said it is unlikely her school system would ever opt out of the program. She said about 74 percent of the school system’s 33,000 student population qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches.
“I get $1.8 million a month in (federal) reimbursement,” she said, “so there's no way I could operate this without the federal government.”
But Kirchner said he thinks he can sell a more popular lunch than the federal government mandates. By doing so, he said, the school can provide something healthy and still survive without the federal dollars.
“We feel like, based on the way it’s going, we can do a better job locally than the federal government can in regards to what our kids in Fort Thomas want,” Kirchner said.