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Schools cut lunch options for kids who can't pay: Will grades suffer?

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(CBS) - How about a cheese sandwich? In some parts of the country, that may be the only option for public school students unable to afford school lunches. With budget cuts and a down economy, many school districts are offering bare-bones "alternative" lunches as a way to balance their budget.

The Lee County, Flordia school district - the 40th largest in the country - is among many school systems that have started offering "alternative options." Since the beginning of the school year, the school district was losing roughly $2,000 a week serving lunch. In a district of 80,000 students, school officials said 1,100 were not paying for meals.

The solution? Offer the cheapest meal possible. Public schools are required by the National School Lunch Program to provide nutritious meals to students. Fortunately for schools trying to cut back, that mandate is apparently met by a cheese sandwich and a 4-ounce juice box. That's the alternative option being offered in Lee County.

School districts across the country are offering similar options. In December, Harrison Hills City School District in Ohio began offering non-paying students a small carton of milk, two slices of bread and a slice of cheese. Things are a little better in Homewood City, Alabama, where students get a piece of fruit to go with their cheese sandwich.

Are such slimmed-down meals enough for students? Alternative meals "are missing all the needs of a child going throughout the day," nutritionist Marissa Sherry tells CBS News. She said that the bare-bones lunches are "not providing enough for a child to properly function in a school setting."

With the U.S. economy in the tank, and school districts facing big budget problems, alternative meals may increasingly become mainstream meals. That doesn't seem to be good news if parents want children to have enough energy throughout the day.

But it's great news if those kids like cheese.

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