Many schools in the nation are considering a change from the National School Lunch Program, which could happen in schools across York County if the regulations for the program continue to become more strict.
For now, the food services department at South Western Area School District will continue to follow the program standards, said Superintendent Barbara Rupp.
But with a decrease in student participation and a growing list of federal nutrition mandates, the district might consider cutting the program next fall at the high school level. The standards were introduced last year.
Shawn Harlacher, the director of food and nutrition services at South Western, said the number of students who buy the program-approved school lunch decreased by 10 percent last year, an estimated 100 meals per day.
"That adds up," Harlacher said.
But the current situation isn't the entire reason the district is considering a change. Harlacher said additional regulations on items like a la carte foods and condiments could have students skipping the lunch line.
South Western isn't alone: Many schools across the country have already dropped the program after just one year, claiming the lunch reimbursements for participating weren't enough to offset lost revenue when students didn't buy the meal. Some schools that participated were thousands of dollars in the red by the end of the 2012-13 school year.
Harlacher said going into debt and relying on the school's general fund goes directly against how the food services department operates: It is designed to be self-sufficient.
Harlacher is concerned about the new a la carte standards, which strictly limit the "extras" students can buy. The drink options would be limited primarily to eight-ounce options of 100 percent juice. Not only would that limit variety, but Harlacher said students would also see a jump in price for a smaller product.
Staying power: Other schools in York County are planning to stick with the lunch program.
Wayne McCullough, the chief financial and operations officer at the Southern York School District, said the school has had success with the new standards.
"We noticed a transition last year at the start of the school year, but after the initial implementation, we thought it went very well," he said.
Superintendent Kate Orban at the York Suburban School District said the school was also staying with the program. Orban said the participation of students in the meal program was even a little higher at the end of the 2012-13 school year than in past years.
Orban said the school does sell a lot of a la carte items, and she said the number of products they sell could decrease with the stricter guidelines. But she also said students have begun choosing other healthy items in vending machines, a sign the program is working in the school.
Donna Devlin, the business manager at the Dallastown Area School District, said the school contracts the meal planning to Chartwells School Dining Services, which follows the national program. Devlin said she expects to continue following those standards.
Schools are reimbursed for following the national standards. At Dallastown, the school receives $2.92 for free lunches, $2.52 for reduced-price lunches and $0.33 for regular-priced meals.
Decisions ahead: Rupp at South Western said she has seen students making better choices in the cafeteria, and believes the program benefits children at the middle and elementary levels.
But Rupp said high school students, who often already make their own food selections outside of school, have balked at some of the options.
Harlacher said one of the first things to go if South Western's high school left the program would be requiring students to take a fruit or vegetable in the line. He said it's one of the major sources of food waste in the cafeteria.
Harlacher also said many students have stopped using the pasta bar because of the whole wheat pastas the cafeteria now uses to follow regulations. He said it might continue to serve whole wheat rolls but reintroduce traditional pastas to the selection. With more program freedom, Harlacher discussed including healthy combination options like soup and salad.
Harlacher said the school would have to find a way to offset the free and reduced lunch prices if the high school stopped participating.
South Western receives $2.93 for free lunches, $2.53 for reduced lunches and $0.28 for regular-priced meals. Harlacher said the district would need to feel confident about offsetting that cost before forgoing the reimbursements.
But all of that is in the future, and it depends upon whether the regulations set for the 2014-15 school year stay as written.
If so, even the condiments bar would look different: Students might only get one packet of ketchup for a hamburger or one packet of mayonnaise for a chicken sandwich.
"I can hear kids saying, 'What? I get one pack of ketchup?'" Harlacher said.
"That would turn students off to the meal program, and that's something we really can't afford to do," Harlacher said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Nikelle Snader can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
School lunch prices by district
Families are reaching for those nickels and dimes this year to pay for their children's school lunches: Several school districts in York County reported an increase in lunch fees for the 2013-2014 school year. Many of the districts said it was to counteract the rising costs of new nutritional standards. Check the differences this year for your district.
---Central: Increase of 10 cents.
---Dallastown: Increase of 10 cents.
---Dover: Increase of 10 cents.
---Eastern: Increase of 10 cents.
---Hanover Public: Increase of 10 cents.
---Northeastern: Increase of 10 cents.
---Northern: Increase of 5 cents at the elementary level, 15 cents in the middle school and 20 cents in the high school.
Middle School: $2.50
High School: $2.55
---Red Lion: No increase.
---South Eastern: Increase of 5 cents.
---South Western: Increase of 5 cents at the elementary level and 10 cents at the secondary levels.
---Southern: No increase.
---Spring Grove: Increase of 5 cents at the elementary level and 10 cents at the secondary level.
---West Shore: Increase of 5 cents.
---West York: Increase of 10 cents.
---York City: Increase of 5 cents.
---York Suburban: No increase.
Barb Mundis contributed to this report. Nikelle Snader can also be reached at email@example.com.