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School officials worry about less fresh food for students' lunches

January 29, 2009 | 12:38 pm

LunchCafeteria workers may have to rev up those can openers: That's the warning from a slew of school and elected officials who are worried that California will run short of the money it gives school districts to supplement school breakfasts and lunches.

State schools chief Jack O'Connell has been warning since December that the money could run out this spring, and this month Assembly Bill 95 was introduced -- which would provide $19.5 million to make up for the shortfall. The state pays 22 cents for each meal a student gets for free; the federal government provides the bulk of the funding -- $2.17 to $2.57 per every free or reduced-price meal served.

And on Friday, officials gathered at L.A. Unified's huge central Newman Nutrition Center to dramatize the problem. In LAUSD, 78% of students are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals. And the number is growing, according to the district, as parents get squeezed in a rough economy.

Without the additional funding, L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon Cortines said, schools will serve less fresh fruit and vegetables ...

and more food from cans, more frozen food, more processed food. "This is essential," he said in support of the legislation.

And if the idea of less fresh produce isn't enough on its own, Cortines noted that the money would likely run out "right at the time of testing."

"I can tell you what's going to happen to test scores," he said. Cortines and other officials noted that many studies have shown that children do better academically and behaviorally in school when they are well-fed.

-- Mary MacVean

Photo: Students at Will Rogers Learning Community, an elementary school in Santa Monica, get fruits and vegetables in a snack program. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times