The Friday menu at Bryan Elementary School cafeteria was well-received by most of the lunch crowd.
While some leftovers landed in the trash cans, the students seemed to gobble up the miniature corn dogs, fruit salad, homemade apple fritters, fresh strawberries, yogurt, peanuts and milk.
“I always pick hot lunch,” said strawberry blond second-grader Alec Tompkins. “The cooks do a really good job.”
Alec’s classmate, Justin Calkins, said he never brings a sack lunch from home.
“This is probably better food here,” he said, working his tray over with a spoon.
Now, almost 80 percent of Bryan Elementary students eat hot lunch. Food providers fear that if proposed changes in the hot lunch program pass Congress, they’ll have fewer kids eating hot lunch, and less money to make healthy meals.
They don’t buy the Republicans’ claim that the bill’s result will be “growing kids, not the government,” and are bombarding their representatives with letters of protest.
Coeur d’Alene schools stand to lose $87,000 in funding for school lunches next year under the bill. Some fear that will force the lunch program to be limited to kids on public assistance.
The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to debate the bill on March 21.
Healthy meals are crucial for some of Bryan’s students. Of those eating hot lunch, almost 66 percent are enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program.
“We have really hungry kids here, really hungry,” said cook Donna Riggs. “We have one little boy, we just can’t fill him up.”
Although the latest legislation proposes an increase in funds next year for Idaho school food programs overall, changes in the federal requirements could mean less money to individual school districts.
And as the years pass, Idaho may get less money because of a complex funding formula based on how much was spent the previous year and how many meals were served.
The proposal does away with the requirement that schools be reimbursed 17 cents for each child who pays full price for hot lunch - which varies from 75 cents to $1.50 in North Idaho.
“We’re concerned,” said Linda Turner, supervisor of Coeur d’Alene’s school lunch program, which stands to lose $87,000 next year in reimbursements.
As a result, school lunch providers expect the participation to drop off because they will be forced to raise prices to make ends meet.
“It will make cafeterias more like a low-income feeding facility rather than for everyone,” said Mary Breckenridge, a food service consultant with the Idaho State Department of Education.
“Children should be able to have meals at school, all children,” she said. “You shouldn’t segregate kids.”
Food service coordinators also worry that without federal nutritional standards, school meals will deteriorate in quality. Fresh fruit could become a thing of the past.
Hot lunch advocates cite studies that show that parents cannot pack a lunch as healthy as the school lunch for the same price. A 1985 Boise School District survey found that out of 261 sack lunches, only 10 percent contained all four food groups.
The new bill also does away with the rule that children living in poverty cannot be charged for meals. Struggling programs may have to charge everyone, allowing some poor children to go hungry.
In extreme cases, some districts with low participation and a low percentage of free and reduced lunches might not be able to continue their hot lunch programs, Breckenridge said.
For instance, Post Falls Junior High only has 29 percent of its lunchtime crowd on free and reduced lunches. Because the building lacks a kitchen, all the meals are prepared in the old Frederick Post Elementary School and trucked over, said the district’s food service supervisor, Annie Mader.
“That’s an additional cost,” she said. “If it comes down to a lot less funding, we’ll have to take a look at that. We might have to reevaluate it.”
Under the proposed legislation, states would get block grants for nutrition programs. Of that, 80 percent must go toward disadvantaged children, and 2 percent can be used for administrative uses.
The other 18 percent can be spent just about any way the state government chooses.
Educators and food service coordinators are hoping they’ll choose to spend it on keeping kids well-fed.
School lunch programs are among the most economically run federal programs, they assert.
“It feeds kids. It doesn’t do anything else,” Turner said. “It seems like the programs that get cut first are the ones that do the most good.”