State nutrition funding gets $17.5 million boost

The state reimbursement for school meals was raised by $17.5 million in 2010-11 budget agreement, an allocation that food operators are saying is finally enough to cover meals through the end of the school year.

Total state support this fiscal year for school meals will be approximately $151.5 million - which should maintain the state's share of 22 cents per meal through June 2011, said officials this week. The federal government also raised California's allocation this year by $200 million.

I do think overall we are on an incredibly positive trend in improving school meals," said Phyllis Bramson-Paul, director of nutrition services at the California Department of Education.

The news arrives as federal legislation that would add even more money for school meals is stalled before Congress. The fate of the Hunger-Free Kids Act is unknown because the bill was held over summer and will now be taken up by a new Congress that is expected to be more conservative.

The federal bill, which would add six cents to each lunch that's in compliance with new nutrition standards, passed the U.S. Senate in August and is pending before the House of Representatives.

While it's unknown just how much Congress and the President will make school food a priority in 2011, Bramson-Paul said she is pleased because politicians at the state and federal levels have begun putting more money where the kid's mouths are.

"We've had a federal investment in school kitchen equipment," she said. "More and more districts are trying to go back to cooking themselves and moving away from using only processed foods. I think we're on a really good trend line."

The federal government provides $2.70 per meal for schools where over 60 percent of low income kids participate in the program. The state government provides $0.2295 on top of that.

But the state allocation has fallen in recent years as participation in the National School Lunch Program jumped amid the economic downturn.

Since 2008-09, the state has run out of cash for the supplemental meal payment by the end of the year. In some cases, districts were forced to reduce staff or switch to cheaper processed foods, explained Bramson-Paul.

A boost of $17.5 million has some food operators celebrating. Jennifer LeBarre, director of nutrition services at Oakland Unified, said the extra funding would make its way right into the student's tummies.

"I definitely think it's gonna be fantastic," she said. "We'd be able to maintain services for sure. It would help us with continuing to serve fresh fruits and vegetables, and maintain meal program improvements that we have."

Stable funding, said LeBarre, would allow the district to maintain its salad bar, which was discontinued with the funding shortfall about a month before the end of the 2009-10 school year.

"In the salad bar, kids get romaine lettuce, cucumbers, and hikima, which comes with fresh lime and chili powder," said LeBarre. "(Hikima) is a very traditional Hispanic dish, and we have kids showing their friends how to eat it. It's kids across the district and across all ages eating hikima!"

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