Eighth-grader Massey Stichter never buys school lunches from Carmel Middle School. She brings her lunch from home every day because she prefers it over the cafeteria food.
But she often purchases snack foods – everything from chips to cookies to ice cream.
“My mom doesn’t have much junk food in our house,” she said, so she buys it from school instead.
But starting in the 2014-15 school year, Charlotte students will no longer find unhealthy snacks at the lunch line.
In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture passed the “Smart Snacks in School,” interim standard, which mandates that schools offer students healthier snack options.
For Charlotte-Mecklenburg students, that means snack items such as cookies and chips will no longer be provided unless manufacturers change to healthier ingredients to abide by the regulations, said Cindy Hobbs, CMS executive director for child nutrition services.
But Hobbs said CMS will not see significant changes to the district’s menus because they are mostly in line with the standards. She said the only foods they might have to eliminate are cookies that are not whole grain and baked chips. But until the new regulations are examined in detail, it’s not clear what will go, she said.
“We were prepared for this,” she said. “We have tried to stay ahead of it by adopting any guidelines as soon as they came out.”
But Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools are less dependent on revenue from a la carte sales, Hobbs said, because in the past few years the district has cut back on snack food offerings to encourage students to buy plate lunches that are more nutritious.
About 12 percent of the district’s $67 million yearly food budget comes from snack sales. The rest of the revenue is funded by students buying complete lunches and federal reimbursements.
In the 2011-12 school year, revenue from snack sales was nearly $8 million, down from more than $11 million in 2008.
In an effort to make the a la carte items healthier, the only beverages sold in CMS cafeterias are juice and milk. Sugary foods are not offered.
The most popular a la carte items, such as french fries and restaurant-delivered pizza, have been removed over the past 10 years, she said.
“When they’re buying a la carte most times they’re buying crackers or cookies,” she said. “When they get a complete lunch they’re getting fruits and vegetables with it, and protein. It’s a more balanced meal.”
Hobbs said students have responded to the push to buy complete meals.
In 2012, 60 percent of students bought lunches, up 13 percent from 2003.
School lunch costs $2 for pre-kindergarten students and $2.25 for students in kindergarten through high school. The prices have risen by 10 cents every year since 2010, she said.
Elementary and K-8 schools will not be affected because they already comply by the nutrition guidelines, Hobbs said. High schools will see the most changes.
The new standards eliminate foods that are high in sodium, fat and sugar. Healthier foods, including whole grains, low-fat dairy, and fruits and vegetables, will be offered under the new rules.
Snack items must be under 200 calories.
Based on calorie levels, some foods may be offered some days but not on others. Every meal provided by schools must be less than 850 calories.
The standards may be confusing for some children, said Lynn Harvey, section chief of child nutrition services at the state Department of Public Instruction.
“We’re telling children on one day it’s an acceptable item, but three days later it’s not,” she said. “There’s an inconsistency there.”
Harvey said the cost of following the standards will ultimately fall on the school districts. A change in nutrition standards means cafeteria workers need training.
She added it’s good the state has a year before the standards are finalized to sort out any problems.
Items sold in vending machines also fall under the guidelines. In Charlotte, vending machines are only found in high schools.
Vending machines are audited several times a year and can be shut down if they don’t meet the guidelines, said Butler High School Principal Will Leach.
He said Butler students are already used to some of the new requirements.
“Last year we put in a healthy vending machine and we added a second one because of the popularity,” Leach said.
The healthy vending machines contain only water and soda and snacks low in calories, he said.
Harvey said they plan to implement the standards gradually over the next year so that students understand the reasoning for the changes.
“One of the things that will come from this is we’ll see a real plea for parents to help them understand healthy nutrition,” she said.
“School nutrition programs cannot reshape children’s eating alone. It’s going to take all of us working together.”
Crampton: 704-358-5112; Twitter: @liz_crampton
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