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School District Trying New Lunch Menu Without Federal Guidelines

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The state's second largest school district has started the school year with a new look for its lunch menu, after opting out of the National School Lunch Program and forfeiting nearly $1 million in federal funding, to gain more freedom in the food it serves students.

In May, the board for Township High School District 214 voted to drop out of the federal program, after deciding its guidelines were too restrictive. For instance, kids would not have been able to buy hard-boiled eggs or certain types of yogurt. School officials also have noted new guidelines consider hummus to be too high in fat, and pretzels to be too high in salt; non-fat milk containers larger than 12 ounces could not be sold either.

CBS 2's Susanna Song visited Hersey High School in Arlington Heights on Wednesday to check out the new menu, including grilled chicken spritzed with lemon was offered in a salad, in pasta, or as a sandwich.

District 214 Associate Supt. Cathy Johnson said school officials have no regrets so far, despite giving up nearly $1 million in federal funding.

"So far so good. The meals, as you've seen, look fantastic, and there's a lot of excitement," she said.

It's been a week since District 214 schools started selling school lunches after opting out of the National School Lunch Program, a move that meant giving up $900,000 in federal aid.

School officials said staying in the program meant following unreasonable restrictions on protein, sodium and fat. Without the newfound freedom from those guidelines, "the meals would be far simpler," Johnson said.

At least two of the three healthy choices on school menus – crispy falafel with flatread and rice pilaf, and pasta primavera with roasted vegetables and olive oil – would not have made the cut for the federal program, as being too low in protein.

Johnson said, the concern was, in addition to the federal guidelines being too restrictive on menu choices, sales of the food they could offer wouldn't be high enough to receive federal aid.

"What would happen is the sales simply wouldn't be there, and the offerings that we would currently have wouldn't be available," Johnson said.

The bottom line, according to Johnson, is if schools can't sell the healthy meals allowed under the federal program, they also wouldn't receive any federal funding, so District 214 opted for healthy options kids would eat.

"It's a reimbursement, so if we don't sell food, we won't receive that $900,000 anyways," Johnson said.

Vending machines at District 214 schools remained the same, offering some healthy snacks alongside the traditional candy bars and chips.

In the cafeteria, grab-and-go pizzas and hot dogs weren't going anywhere, either.

"There are some à la carte items that are more or less the tried and true, and our students and our staff will certainly be continuing to partake in those," Johnson said.

The current school year is a trial run for the new school lunches. The district will evaluate the program quarterly, but believe with strong à la carte sales and the new menu options, they'll do fine without federal aid.

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