By KEN KUSMER
FISHERS, Ind. (AP) -- It's one thing to serve healthy food at schools and another to pay for it, a top U.S. nutrition official was told Friday when she went to talk to students, parents and teachers about good eating habits.
Deputy Administrator Audrey Rowe of the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service visited Fishers Elementary School north of Indianapolis to talk about eating right and to promote President Barack Obama's call to more than double federal spending on school meals and other child nutrition programs to $1 billion per year.
Susanne Benedict, the mother of two fourth-graders and a third-grader at the school, said chicken nuggets and hot dogs still appear too often on school menus when her children are eating artichokes, asparagus and bell peppers at home.
"A lot of heads are stuck on the nugget," she said during a round-table discussion Rowe had with students, parents, teachers and school officials.
However, Sara Gasiorowski, who oversees 12,500 school lunches daily as food service director for Wayne Township Schools in Indianapolis, said there's little she can do when school food programs must pay for themselves and cover the cost of free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches served to needy students.
Gasiorowski said schools charge $2.25 for lunches with milk, but the average cost is $2.68, so she, like other food managers, must sell a la carte items to make up the difference.
"I'd love to offer a whole-meat chicken breast," she said.
She suggested to Rowe that the child nutrition legislation now before Congress reimburse schools $1 for every free meal they serve.
Rowe said a bill that cleared the Senate Agriculture Committee in March and is pending before the full Senate reimburses just 6 cents per meal. That bill would spend $4.5 billion over 10 years for school meals, summer food service and other child nutrition programs rather than the $1 billion Obama wants.
More than 400,000 Indiana students, about 45 percent of the state total, were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches this year, according to Indiana Department of Education data.
The House hasn't introduced its own legislation on child nutrition spending yet, and it remains uncertain whether a bill will clear Congress before it adjourns this fall. Rowe said it needs to act by then.
"It is crucial that we get it passed this year," she said.
She and other Agriculture Department officials have been traveling the country to promote the Obama initiative.
"We need to be able to improve access" to better nutrition, Rowe said.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.