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."
For the more about this story, cact Stan Chambers, Staff Writer for the N&0