Healthier school lunches costly

DALLAS – Industrial blenders mix up smoothies for students in New York while some schools in California are adding salad bars. In Dallas, campus cafeterias use pass-through coolers and warmers to make sure the food is just right before it’s served.

School districts across the country have made such upgrades in recent years as a way to entice children into healthier eating habits amid higher nutrition standards.

But paying for the makeovers poses a challenge for many districts, as heavy demand for a limited amount of federal money means schools must fund the projects on their own. Some have made gradual improvements, while others passed the bulk of the tab to taxpayers through large bond packages.

“We can’t do it overnight,” said Dora Rivas, who oversees child nutrition for the Dallas Independent School District. “It’s very difficult for school districts to do it with their regular operating costs.”

The district, which is the 14th largest in the nation, has used a variety of methods – including a $20 million bond program, a $372,000 federal grant and about $5 million from its budget – to improve about 90 kitchens over the last several years. Plus, another 20 schools are in line for upgrades once the money is found.

Federal grants exist but the dollars are scarce and the competition fierce. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture offered about $100 million for school kitchen upgrades, and received requests from almost 25,000 schools at a price of $640 million. Since then, the allotment has shrunk significantly: $25 million in 2010 and $11 million last year. In April, $25 million in grants were announced.

“The need is tremendous that is out there,” said Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. “These grants can make a significant dent but they still remain hundreds of millions of dollars in need.”