FORT THOMAS, Ky. — Lunch at Fort Thomas Independent Schools may include more French fries, fewer vegetables and larger portions this year. One thing that won't be on the menu: federal dollars.
The Campbell County, Ky., district is opting out of the federal school lunch program, forfeiting hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding.
The reason: Kids didn't like their healthful lunches.
"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,' " said Fort Thomas Superintendent Gene Kirchner.
The 2,800-student district joins a small but growing number of school districts across the country — mostly wealthy districts that can afford to forfeit the money — that have dropped out of the federal program in the wake of stricter nutritional standards.
Schools said students don't like the unsalted potatoes, low-fat cheese or the mandatory fruits and vegetables. They throw food away or decide not to eat at all.
In Kirchner's district, 166 fewer students bought lunch every day last year — 30,000 fewer a year. Instead they brought lunch from home, went to nearby restaurants or skipped lunch altogether.
That's a problem because students were going hungry or choosing unhealthful fast food or snacks instead of school meals.
It's also a financial problem for the district. If kids don't buy lunch, the district loses money and has to dig into its general fund.
Money that could pay for textbooks and technology must be redirected to pay for green beans and whole-grain hot dog buns.
It simply wasn't economically feasible anymore, Kirchner said. "The program is heading in the wrong direction," he said.
So his school board opted out. It will still offer lunch — a healthful lunch, he said — at the same prices.
Children who get free or reduced-price lunches — about 17% of the student body — will still get them at that price.
Only now, the school district will absorb the cost — more than $260,000 a year — rather than use federal funding to cover it.
Schools throughout the nation are grappling with the same decision.
Nationwide, 1 million fewer students are choosing a school lunch each day, according to the national School Nutrition Association.
Last year, it said, 47% of school meal programs reported that their overall revenues had declined — and when kids don't buy school lunches, the district loses money.
It's unclear how many schools or districts have dropped the program because of the new nutrition guidelines.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the number is small. Its blog post in September 2013 said only 146 of the schools surveyed, or 0.15%, had left the program because they wouldn't comply with the new standards.
"But we've seen a lot more schools pop up," said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association. "I've seen stories out of New York, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania." She thinks the number will increase this year as the standards expand to include "a la carte" items at school snack bars, which are often money-makers for schools.
Fort Thomas is the first to drop the program districtwide in the greater Cincinnati area. The Oak Hills school district in Hamilton County, Ohio, dropped it at several schools, including the high school, 33 years ago. Even back then school officials say too-strict regulations were to blame.
Districts who drop the program have something in common: Their student body is fairly wealthy. They have few enough students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches that they can afford to cover that cost.
For higher-poverty districts, though, dropping the program simply isn't an option.
"Gracious, no," said Jessica Shelly, the Cincinnati Public Schools Food Service director, when asked whether her district could afford to drop it. Around 74% of the 33,000 students there qualify 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."
Other school districts, such as Lakota in Butler County, Ohio, are on the bubble. Like Fort Thomas, 18% or 19% of Lakota students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.
"We've looked at the option (of dropping the program) every year," said Food Service Director Chris Burkhardt.
"We definitely see kids throw food away. We try to educate them ... but we're having a tough time changing a mindset that's been around since the beginning of time to just take what you're going to eat," he said.
The district of 16,700 got $1.3 million in federal subsidies last year for the lunch program. Participation has gone down about 5% since the standards came along.
Right now dropping the program doesn't make economic sense. Someday, though, it may, Burkhardt said. It's more expensive to provide whole-grain pasta or low-sodium cheese, he said. Manufacturers have had to reformulate all their recipes and often pass the costs on to school districts.
The district raised lunch prices 10 cents this year because of the increased costs. If it drops the federal lunch program it probably would raise prices even more.
"We try not to pass costs on to consumers, but we're still a business," he said.
Andi Sempier, the mother of a third-grade student at Fort Thomas' Woodfill Elementary school, said she's glad the district did away with the standards.
"I'm lucky my daughter will eat her vegetables. But it was very wasteful from what I've seen from being in the cafeteria," she said. "And the lunch purchases have fallen off. That's a huge indicator it's not working."
At the tiny Silver Grove school district in Campbell County, Ky., just down the road from Fort Thomas, 85% of students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches. The district can't afford to drop the program.
Students have noticed the difference since the new standards kicked in.
"I don't like it," said Rachael Garza, a junior. "They got rid of all the good food, and it doesn't taste good."
Her favorite side, macaroni and cheese, is no longer on the menu. Students were required to take green beans or applesauce with their chicken sandwiches Friday. Most of the green beans went in the garbage.
"I eat it because I'm hungry," she said. "But it's not a good thing."
Many districts, especially those unable to opt out, are getting creative to make sure less food ends up in the garbage.
"If they're throwing it out, that sends red flags to say, 'Why are they throwing it out?' Have I asked them what they like? Have I tried different recipes?" Shelly said. "My kids aren't like, 'Yay – vegetables!' But that's my staff's job so I can at least encourage them to try it."
Some school districts are working with chefs or other consultants to improve their food's flavor. Lakota will experiment this year with an induction cooker and cooked-to-order stir fry.
School leaders and the School Nutrition Association say they support more healthful lunches. They oppose the timing, though, and the way the standards have been rolled out.
"I think the standards are absolutely a good thing," said Burkhardt. "They address childhood obesity. My biggest regret is that they weren't phased in over time. I think I speak for most directors when I say we'd like a year to catch our breath and market the program a little bit before we take the next step."