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Federal money to make school lunches healthier remains unspent in many states, including Illinois

Feds say districts around the country complain about not having enough money for lunch improvements, but nationally and in Illinois they’ve left millions in training funds on the table.

SHARE Federal money to make school lunches healthier remains unspent in many states, including Illinois
Federal money to make school lunches healthier remains unspent in many states, including Illinois

U.S Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack spoke at the Union League Club Friday about food and agriculture funding. He noted that his department gave states $90 million to implement 2010 school food standards. He said almost a third of that remains unspent.

AP/File

New school food rules, passed in 2010, have required districts to revamp their offerings--boosting whole grains and vegetables while reducing sodium and trans fats.

But many districts and politicians--aiming to roll back the rules--have complained that those standards cost too much to implement.

In Chicago today, U.S. Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack struck back at those claims, noting that his department gave states $90 million to implement the new rules with training and technical assistance programs.

“But there’s still $28 million left unspent,” Vilsack said during a talk at the Union League Club Friday. “My favorite is the state of Louisiana where Bobby Jindal has not spent a dime of that money. It’s $2 million [in unspent funding] in that state and I think it’s a fairly significant amount in Illinois, too.”

According to USDA sources, the amount unspent in Illinois (where healthier Chicago Public Schools lunches have met mixed reactions) is more than $3 million--$1.5 million of which is set to expire at the end of the month.

So why have Illinois and other states left the money unspent?

“It’s a puzzle to me,” Vilsack said. “We’ve written them. We’ve communicated to governors and legislators that this money is available. You’d have to ask them.”

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), which is charged with using the money, did not make anyone available for comment before deadline. But USDA says that it has already approved use of the $1.5 million to purchase menu planning software. It’s unclear, however, if ISBE will procure the contracts for the software in time to use the money.

After Sept. 30, the state will have $1.7 million in funding remaining, according to USDA.

While at the Union League Club, Sec. Vilsack was also asked what he planned to do about school food waste, reportedly exacerbated by new healthier school food rules. Vilsack said studies did not show greater waste in schools caused by the rules. But he did say that the broader food waste problem was troublesome. Vilsack announced that he will unveil a brand new national anti-food waste initiative this Thursday in New York city.

Monica Eng is WBEZ’s food and health reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org

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