The french fries offered separately from the main meal for $1.50 went quickly during a recent lunch period at Wakefield High School's cafeteria. Many students were not enthusiastic about the $2 meal designed to meet certain nutrition standards — a choice of a slice of pizza, a beef and cheese slider or a spicy chicken sandwich with servings of green beans, salad or fruit.
Oyinkan Olusesi, a sophomore at the Raleigh school, didn't eat that day. She said $2 is too much to pay for a school cafeteria meal when more appealing food can be had elsewhere at competitive prices. "A lot of people are going to McDonald's because of their dollar menu," she said.
What Olusesi may not know is that her school cafeteria is losing money on every $2 meal it can entice students to buy. The Wake school board recently raised the price to $2.25, but that still won't cover the food program's cost.
Cafeteria manager Patricia Cuda does not want to sell the large order of fat-laden, salty fries, but she says she has to offer such a la carte items to make her budget.
"I hope it's not totally going to be turned into a McDonald's atmosphere," she said. "We try to give everyone as much healthy food as possible. I would hope that the government can kick in and give everyone free lunch."
More than half of the school food programs in the state are operating in the red, losing a total of $28 million in 2008. Their financial problems are mounting at a time when parents, child health advocates and legislators are looking to school food programs to improve students' nutrition and to help stem the epidemic of childhood obesity.
In 2008, North Carolina ranked 14th in the nation for the percentage of youths aged 11 to 17 who were overweight or obese, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly 18 percent of North Carolina youths were overweight, and 15.2 percent were obese.
The people who manage school food programs say they can't improve the programs with revenue currently available. The federal government provides a subsidy for meals, but most programs have to cover the cost of food, salaries and other expenses with the federal subsidy and whatever they think they can reasonably charge students. Local school districts absorb losses when the programs can't cover costs.
In 2006, the state legislature required schools to serve more fruits, vegetables and whole-grain food, and fewer dishes with lots of fat and sugar. However, it did not kick in extra money for the higher costs of the more nutritious foods.
School districts implemented the changes, but "at an extreme financial loss," said Marilyn Moody, senior director of child nutrition services for Wake County.
Among the state's 115 school districts, 67 are losing money feeding their kids. About 45 are in such bad financial shape that they would not be able to handle a "catastrophic event" such as having to replace a freezer that costs thousands of dollars, said Lynn Harvey, who oversees child nutrition for the Department of Public Instruction.
The Legislative Task Force on Childhood Obesity, formed to devise strategies to slim down the state's youth, considered the role of school food programs. It recommended that the legislature, which convenes May 12, implement measures that would allow school food programs to get more federal dollars and to devote more of their revenue to quality food.
For now, districts are looking for cheaper ways to get better food on to lunch trays, including grants to pay for fresh fruits and vegetables. Some schools are growing their own gardens.
Most are barely surviving.
"What's happening in school districts across the nation is people are scratching their heads and deciding what the priorities are for their program," Harvey said. "Is the purpose to provide nutritional, affordable meals? Or is the purpose to generate revenue? That's where we find our districts now."
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