Local schools struggling to afford healthy lunches

TACOMA, Wash. -- New federal food regulations have changed what's being served for school lunch this year, but finding money for the healthier options is straining Tacoma's already strapped meal budget.

Raising the price of lunch is a nonstarter because 62 percent of the district's students are eligible for free and reduced-cost lunches, which is a higher percentage than any other large district in the state.

Tacoma's Franklin Elementary School serves up lean and green choices for its students. There's a salad bar stacked with fruits and vegetable, where romaine has replaced iceberg lettuce and buns are now multigrain and smaller.

"The pizza has to be a smaller crust. It can't be as much bread in it because that would exceed the limit," said Paul Scott, the manager of nutrition services.

For many Franklin students, school lunch is the only healthy meal they'll get all day. A full 77 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunches, and that number is growing.

Because of that, Franklin's lunch program is losing money at a rate of 10 cents per meal and the district is working with a $400,000 loss on its lunch program.

"We haven't raised prices for the meals to paying students in about 7 years," Scott said.

Scott said the district would have to raise lunch prices from $2.50 to $3 to even make a dent in the program's losses, but that might discourage some parents from paying and keep kids from receiving the nutrition they need.

So the district is trying to save money in other ways. Franklin is encouraging students to take only what they'll eat in an effort to cut down on food waste.

"Just that concept lowers our food cost because people throw away less of the food they take," Scott said.

It appears that message has found a home with many of the young students.

"Well, I used to waste food, but now I'm not wasting anything," said student Carter Johnson.

If the school doesn't have dairy, protein, multigrain and fruits or vegetables on its lunch trays, it will lose about 6 cents per meal from the government. That's not happening at Franklin because lunch ladies are policing the plates and sending students back or handing them raisins.