Why would a school or school district choose to leave a program espousing higher nutrition standards? According to the Associated Press, some districts claim they are losing money because of the healthy changes to the lunch program. Federal officials say they don’t have exact numbers but have seen isolated reports of schools cutting ties with the $11 billion National School Lunch Program, which reimburses schools for meals served and gives them access to lower-priced food. Districts that rejected the program say the reimbursement was not enough to offset losses from students who began avoiding the lunch line and bringing food from home or, in some cases, going hungry.
“Some of the stuff we had to offer, they wouldn’t eat,” explained Superintendent Gary Lewis of Catlin, Illinois schools, whose district saw a drop of 10 – 12% in lunch sales, translating to a $30,000 loss. “So you sit there and you watch the kids, and you know they’re hungry at the end of the day, and that led to some behavior and some lack of attentiveness.”
Vooreheesville, New York Superintendent Teresa Thayer Snyder stated that her students complained about the food featured in the new program, leading to huge monetary losses ($30,000 in three months) when the students stopped buying the meals offered. This happens often because students simply do not recognize the foods being served at the cafeteria line. The program did not make it through the entire school year as a result.
Deputy undersecretary for the USDA’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, Dr. Jamey Thornton, hopes students will eventually come to like the new choices. “Many of these children have never seen or tasted some of the fruits and vegetables that are being served before, and it takes a while to adapt and learn.” Apparently 1% of the 521 district nutrition directors who were surveyed said they plan to drop out of the program. Another 3% reported they are considering dropping out of the program.
The new guidelines set limits on calories and salt, phase in more whole grains and require that fruit and vegetables be served daily. A typical elementary school meal under the program consisted of whole-wheat cheese pizza, baked sweet potato fries, grape tomatoes with low-fat ranch dip, applesauce and 1% milk.
At Wallace County High School in Sharon Springs, Kansas, football player Callahan Grund said he and his friends were not too thrilled with the calorie limits (750-850 for high school) when they had hours of calorie-burning practice after school. “A lot of kids were resorting to going over to the convenience store across the block from the school and kids were buying junk food,” the 17-year-old said. “It was kind of ironic that we’re downsizing the amount of food to cut down on obesity but kids were going and getting junk food to fill the hunger.”
Schools that drop the school lunch program can develop their own meal strategy. Catlin, Illinois schools are bringing back fish sticks and hamburgers – perennial student favorites - but will keep items like yogurt and bananas (which are part of the National School Lunch Program). The students in Voorheesville, New York are eating a sophisticated menu created by a chef. It includes salad topped with flank steak and pasta with chicken and mushrooms.
Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake School District has become the latest casualty in first lady Michelle Obama’s preferred lunch plan, dropping the menu, like other systems, after too many students complained of hunger. Food service manager Nicky Boehm said, “Students felt they weren’t getting good value for their money. The high schoolers especially complained the portion sizes were too small and many more students brought in lunch from home.”
The United States Department of Agriculture is in charge of managing the National School Lunch Program. It estimates Mrs. Obama’s new wish list for student meals would cost about $3.2 billion to bring fruition around the nation.
Someone needs to remind those in charge that, all too often, school breakfast and school lunch, are the only meals some students receive each day. While eating healthy is important, it is also essential these students not be sent home hungry.