It's back to school time, and that means those healthful new school lunches, rolled out to great fanfare by the Obama administration last fall … are being pitched directly into the trash!
The waste is leading some school districts to drop out of the well-meaning more healthful National School Lunch Program. The $11-billion federal program reimburses schools for meals served and gives them access to lower-priced foods.
Problem is, cafeterias serving meals packed with whole grains, fruits and vegetables are losing money. Kids are either bringing food from home, buying crap at the liquor store around the corner or even going hungry rather than eat the dreaded “good for you” stuff. Kids also are complaining about the smaller portions of the healthful meals, which have strict aged-based calorie limits.
The Catlin, Ill., school district, for example, saw a 10 to 12 percent drop in lunch sales last year, translating to $30,000 lost under the new more healthful plan.
“So you sit there and 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,” Superintendent Gary Lewis told the Associated Press euphemistically.
A few districts in upstate New York have quit the program, including the Schenectady-area Burnt Hills Ballston Lake system, whose five lunchrooms ended the year $100,000 in the red, according to the AP.
Near Albany, Voorheesville Superintendent Teresa Thayer Snyder told the AP her district lost $30,000 in the first three months. The program didn't even make it through the school year.
Districts that leave the program are free to come up with their own guidelines and dishes. That means that in Catlin, soups and fish sticks will return this year, and the hamburger lunch will come with yogurt and a banana. Last year, you got one or the other.
The White House has put together a helpful graphic of typical school lunches “before” and “after” the new guidelines. An example:
Bean and cheese burrito (5.3 oz.) with mozzarella cheese (1 oz.)
Applesauce (1/4 cup)
Orange juice (4 oz.)
2% milk (8 oz.)
Submarine sandwich (1 oz. turkey, .5 oz. low-fat cheese) on whole wheat roll
Refried beans (1/2 cup)
Jicama (1/4 cup)
Green pepper strips (1/4 cup)
Cantaloupe wedges, raw (1/2 cup)
Skim milk (8 oz.)
Mustard (9 grams)
Reduced-fat mayonnaise (1 oz.)
Low-fat ranch dip (1 oz.)
To be honest, the “after” meal seems like a bit of an odd jumble. We can't figure out where the refried beans come in. And no one likes low-fat ranch dip. No one.
On the menu? Sweet potato fries (baked). Off the menu? Tater tots.
About 31 million students nationwide participated in the guidelines that took effect last fall under the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act — whether willingly or unwillingly is unclear.
Dr. Janey Thornton, deputy undersecretary for USDA's Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, which oversees the program, told the AP that she is aware of the district dropouts but is still optimistic about the program's long-term prospects.
“The vast majority of schools across the country are meeting the updated meal standards successfully, which is so important to help all our nation's children lead healthier lives,” she said.
“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,” she added.
The agency doesn't know exactly how many districts have dropped out, Thornton said, cautioning that “the numbers that have threatened to drop and the ones that actually have dropped are quite different.”
The School Nutrition Assn. says that just 1 percent of 521 district nutrition directors surveyed over the summer said they planned to drop out of the program in the 2013-14 school year. About 3 percent said they were “considering” the move.
Many districts can't afford to quit. The National School Lunch Program provides cash reimbursements for each meal served: about $2.50 to $3 for free and reduced-priced meals and about 30 cents for full-price meals. That takes the option of quitting off the table for schools with large numbers of poor students.
The new guidelines set limits on calories and salt, phase in more whole grains and require that fruit and vegetables be served daily.
Last December, the Agriculture Department, responding to complaints that kids weren't getting enough to eat, relaxed the 2-ounce-per-day limit on grains and meats while keeping the calorie limits.
Now where, exactly, do Flamin Hot Cheetos fit into all this?
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook, and follow Samantha Bonar at @samanthabonar.