Approximately 200 school districts across the country have opted out of the federal lunch program, leaving them free from regulations Michelle Obama pushed in 2010, but without federal subsidies for school lunches.
“It was basically about watching the amount of food get thrown away last year. The kids just didn’t like what we had to offer them,” said Gary Lewis, superintendent of Catlin Public Schools in Illinois. “The new guidelines from the federal level for us were too restrictive.”
Through the lunch program, the federal government dictates the type, amount, and even color of food in public schools.
Federal lunch programs began because students were coming to school malnourished, said Kay Brown, a director at the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO).
“We still have hunger, and we have problems with obesity and all the challenges that presents,” she said. “The solution to that is the right amount of nutritious food.”
Brown presented a GAO report to Congress in June on the effects of 2010’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The report recommended changes to the law because GAO’s investigation found it increased useless calories in meals and food waste in cafeterias. About 200 schools have dropped the federal program because of its regulations and costs, according to the School Nutrition Association.
Higher Costs for Schools
The 2010 law will cost taxpayers another $3.2 billion over its first five years, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates. Districts are reporting fewer students purchasing lunch, and they say the new menu requires costly equipment upgrades.
Catlin lost somewhere between $5,000 and $7,000 last year because of the regulations, Lewis said. Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake district in New York served 22 percent fewer lunches and lost about $100,000.
“That was upsetting to everybody—the board of education, the school lunch manager,” said Christy Multer, a district spokesman. “She’s expected to operate her program in the black, to cover the cost of offering the lunches to students from the sales…. If you offer food that students don’t like, they won’t buy it.”
What Kids Won’t Eat
The HHFKA requires schools to serve a fruit or vegetable to students, even if those students will not eat it. GAO inspectors visited an elementary school that served children oranges, which many threw in the trash, Brown said.
“In that particular case, the effect is more on the nutrition the kids are not getting,” Brown said.
She said she saw similar waste in seven of the 17 schools she visited, but she noted most of the waste occurred in the youngest grades, and lunch period length may have been a factor.
The act mandates which kinds of vegetables students should be served—one from each of five categories per week. Many students readily eat beans within soup or chili, Multer said, but won’t eat them measured out in little cups the way the regulations direct.
The lunch manager was further challenged by requirements that food vendors hadn’t caught up with, Multer said. Three-ounce chicken patties, a popular meal at the district, didn’t fit the 10-ounce-per-week cap for a protein-based entrée, which averages two ounces per day. Many students were disgruntled at seeing part of the patty cut off.
“We wanted to give it a full year’s try, and we did,” Multer said. “We were hoping that maybe it would bounce back, the kids would get used to it, but it didn’t.”
Multer and Lewis said their districts will still offer free and reduced-price lunches, but local and not nationwide taxpayers will foot the bill.
“Some school districts have figured out a little better than others how to change their menus, or how to change the nutritional contents of the lunch program and make it appealing to kids,” Brown said. “Some have been introducing over a period of time some more healthy foods….. Over time, acceptance was improving.”
Balancing Authority, Responsibility
Multer said her district provided healthy lunches before HHFKA, and so do many districts. Each district’s challenges are different, Brown said.
“There’s such huge variety from one [school district] to another,” she said. “Some have really diverse populations, and they have to decide what kinds of ethnic foods students will accept, and some have fewer students eligible for free and reduced-price meals, and who can go off campus to buy their own food.”
Parents are an important part of keeping kids healthy, Multer said.
“The question becomes, what’s the role of the parent to ensure that each child is exposed to a wide variety of vegetables for their health versus the role of the school district?” she said. “Schools also have an obligation to work with parents to ensure that. We need to involve parents in that. I think the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has called attention to this, and maybe this is something that will promote more parents to take a more active role in their children’s eating.”
Taking responsibility for school lunches means upset parents are now the district’s fault, Lewis noted, which makes them more responsive to parent concerns.
“How do you ensure healthy children and healthy adults?” Multer asked. “Some things you can legislate, and some things maybe you can’t legislate. You can’t legislate kids to like sweet potatoes.”
Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture.