State sen. submits bill to make Federal School Lunch program optional

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- In Tempe's elementary schools, lunch is serious business, whether these kids realize it or not.

"For some students it may be the only meal of the day. For others it's not, but it isn't any less important," says Linda Rider, director of Nutritional Services for Tempe Public Elementary Schools.

Rider makes sure all of the student population is fed with the help of the federal school lunch program.

"We run about 74 percent free and reduced and it allows us to feed all our children in need and all of the children no matter what the income is in our district," Rider said. 

Right now it's mandatory for all of Arizona's public elementaries to participate in the federal lunch program. But State Sen. Rich Crandall wants to scrub that law and make the program optional, all because of new guidelines coming this week that will make lunches healthier, but will cost districts more to provide.

"It's great that we're going toward higher nutrition requirements, but there's a cost with everything that's coming out, all the new regulations that are going to roll out through the entire year," Crandall said.

He feels his bill to make the federal program optional gives school districts a chance to find a cheaper way to feed students.

"The only type of district this would impact would be your incredibly low, free and reduced -- 3 percent, 4 percent, 5 percent," he said.

There are critics worried that some kids won't get the nutrition they rely on and places such as food banks may have to fill the gap.

"I'm very concerned that if that goes away at the schools, and I know they have an option, those kids are going to be turning elsewhere for food support," said Terry Shannon with St. Mary's Food Bank. 

But Arizona's School Nutrition Association shows only a handful of smaller districts would have the numbers to consider opting out if the bill becomes law. The majority, including Tempe, would stick to using federal funds for lunch.

"Regardless of what your situation is, kids have been fed. Kids will continue to be fed in Arizona," Crandall said.

Crandall does have history with the school lunch field. His business makes sure menus in schools match federal guidelines. He says there's no angle for him here, other than feeling that public elementary schools should have the choice whether or not to participate, just like charter schools and high schools in the state of Arizona.