Economy Project: School Meals Still A Good Deal
By Bill Zeeble, KERA News
Dallas, TX –
Family pocketbooks may seem a little emptier today as North Texas parents send their children back to school. Many have had to scramble for classroom supplies, clothes, school shots and more. But in today's economy segment, Bill Zeeble says nutritious school meals still offer a big bang for the buck. Bill explains why they're something every family can afford.
On the first day of school, these halls in Stevens Park Elementary in Dallas, are again filling with students. But before the children nervously hunt for new chairs and desks, they need to be ready to learn. That requires good nutrition, according to Christina Smith, Dallas Independent School District Nutrition Services Manager.
"We know breakfast is the most important meal of the day and research continues to support that breakfast is really linked to academic success," says Smith.
Smith's colleague, Stevens Park first grade teacher Candace Westman, says she can usually tell when students have not eaten breakfast.
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"They're just not paying attention, not focused, their head's on their desk, they're complaining that their stomach hurts," says Westman. "And then finally, when you ask them enough questions, 'Ooo, I didn't eat this morning.'"
In most Texas schools, students have an option to satisfy that morning hunger with free or reduced fee breakfasts. In Dallas, for example, every DISD student gets a free breakfast if the school is signed up. These 'grab n go' meals include pancakes or a muffin and milk. Then there's the mandated school lunch program, overseen by the federal and state agriculture departments.
"I like to tell out parents that, you know, a lot of people have what they call a value meal," Smith says. "But school lunches are really THE value meal. In the sense that we must still adhere to national standards so that less than 30 percent of calories come from total fat, less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat and all these other nutritional standards for vitamins and minerals and those kind of things. You can get all of that for $1.50. No where else."
That's $1.50 for students who pay. It's 40 cents or free for those from low income families. In Dallas and Fort Worth schools, most qualify to eat for free. Depending on the day, students can lunch on entrees like orange chicken, a yogurt parfait or a Philly flat bread melt. And in this recession, more students than ever are receiving free lunches. For example, this year in Fort Worth, more than three-quarters of the students qualify for free meals, up from last year. Smith says the need is even higher in Dallas.
"In the two years preceding the past year, we had a one percent increase," says Smith. "So we went from 82 to 83 percent. Just this last year we went from 84 percent economically disadvantaged to 86 percent."
Nutritionist say the school lunch deal is hard to beat, even for those who pay the full price, which varies by district. That's because it's prepared fresh, is nutritionally balanced, and the cost is subsidized. In addition, the latest Texas mandate should make school meals even healthier this year. DISD's Nutrition Director, Dora Rivas, says deep fat frying is no longer allowed. She spoke from Washington DC, where she led a national meeting as President of the School Nutrition Association.
"This year we're going to be doing a lot more baking and lowering the number of items that require frying," she said.
Rivas says some parents like packing bag lunches, so she recommends fresh fruit and whole grains. But she's convinced the school lunch remain the best and safest deal, because a sack lunch is not always nutritionally balanced, and items that need to stay cold might warm up. Parents who need help paying for their child's school breakfast and lunch, can usually find help in the school principal's office.
For more on how to save on school expenses go to our special website, kera.org/economy.