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What to expect in the school lunchroom

Whether your kids like fruits and vegetables or not, public schools are required to serve them to those in the lunch line.

What your kid will be served

Among other items, every school must offer a full cup of fruits or vegetables at each meal. And students are required to take at least one half cup.

That’s just one of the many rules under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which also sets minimum and maximum calories in meals served by schools.

Officials with Gainesville and Hall County school districts create menus based on those requirements, which have been phased in over a period of years.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue recently slowed the implementation of some requirements set to begin this school year in order to give districts more time to meet them. Those would have lowered sodium in meals, required grains be 51 percent whole and removed 1 percent flavored milk as an option.

There are no requirements in either school district about the type of food that students and employees may bring from home, according to representatives from both school systems.

How food allergies are handled varies by school

Students with allergies who eat food provided by the food service staff are required to provide a written and signed doctor’s note naming the allergen the student must avoid, according to Trae Cown, nutritional coordinator for Hall County Schools. He said it is necessary in some circumstances for the doctor to also include suitable alternatives.

He added that Hall and most other school districts have software to track student allergies and alert the cashier if a student has chosen a problematic food.

Cown said there are also no districtwide regulations restricting students, teachers, parents and others from bringing in foods for which others may have allergies.

“If such rules are in place at a school, it is a decision that is made at the school level, most likely by the principal and their administrative team,” Cown said in an email. “Many elementary schools opt to provide a ‘peanut-free table’ since peanuts tend to be the greatest allergy trigger in younger children. This is not a requirement however.”

How much you’ll pay

The two local districts handle payment for meals differently.

Gainesville serves student meals for free since it is a Special Provision 2 district through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to Penny Fowler, Gainesville Schools director of school nutrition. Under the provision, the district must pay the difference between the federal reimbursement and the cost of providing meals. Fowler said Gainesville pays with local and state funds since the provision does not allow federal funds to be used. She added that 76 percent of city students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

In Hall, Cown said meals can be paid with cash, check or online.

Hall now allows students to charge up to $10. After that point, Cown said principals become involved with charge collection. He added that Hall “does not take trays away from students, nor do we provide alternate meals” regardless of how much a student owes.

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