Food served in public schools likely will look healthier in coming years, but local and state officials still are unsure how the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will affect meals served in the Hamilton County Schools system.
"They've given us a framework, but specifically how it's going to impact us, we don't know yet," said Carolyn Childs, director of school nutrition for the system.
For instance, Childs said, the federal government wants to expand the after-school and breakfast programs, but by how much? She's not sure.
The idea behind the $4.5 billion measure signed recently by President Obama is to combat childhood obesity by providing healthier guidelines for school meals, as well as providing food to more children in poverty.
One of the biggest changes for Hamilton County, Childs said, is that students who attend schools in poor communities automatically will be eligible for free, federally subsidized lunches without having to fill out an income-based application.
In addition to cutting down on vast amounts of paperwork for her office, Childs believes the change will mean more students can afford to eat school lunches.
"This will get food into the mouths of children sooner," she said.
Still, Childs doesn't know which Hamilton County public schools will be eligible to participate.
For the first time in decades, the federal reimbursement rate for lunches will be increased, by 6 cents. But it will be given out based on the performance of a school district. Childs said she imagines requirements might include providing more green, leafy vegetables or cutting out any butterfat higher than 1 percent.
"It was my understanding there would be money for fresh fruits and vegetables, but ... 6 cents is not a lot," she said.
Other changes include:
• Creating U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional guidelines on all foods sold on school property during the school day, including vending machines.
• Including some source of potable water at the end of school lunch lines.
• Changing the components of what constitutes a school lunch (now one meat, one bread, one milk and two fruits or vegetables).
Sarah White, director of school nutrition for the Tennessee Department of Education, said she expects implementing all the changes will take years, especially changing the makeup of school lunches.
"The only thing I see happening quickly is the water [available during lunch]," she said. "It's a good idea, but I hope it doesn't make the kids not want milk."