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School Lunches Face Changes and Rollbacks

Pew Charitable Trust

School lunch standards originally promoted by former first lady Michelle Obama could be going the way of the inkwell and quill pen. And it’s not the first such attempt.

The Trump Administration has announced plans —again — to roll back the criteria on fruits and vegetables and add items such as burgers and pizza. Agriculture Sec. Sonny Perdue claims in a news release that local schools “know their children best."

“We want to give them the flexibility to make them not only nutritious, but palatable where the kids want to come and enjoy a great school meal,” said Purdue in 2017. “These changes are not undertaken lightly; it’s a result of feedback from schools, school nutritional professionals, parents, and others around the issues.”

Supporters of the changes point to the higher cost of compliance with the current guidelines. Critics say the policy change will result in unhealthier foods being introduced into school meals. At the crux of the matter, said Purdue, is that school districts feel there’s too much food waste.

Credit North Country Public Radio
U.S. Agriculture Sec. Sonny Purdue.

“Meals can’t be nutritious if they aren’t consumed, if they’re put in the trash,” Purdue said. “We’ve got to balance the nutritional aspect, the sodium content, the whole grain content, with the palatability. We know that kids are pretty outspoken about what they want to eat and what they don’t. And that’s what our school professionals deal with every day.”

A study from Cornell and Brigham Young Universities suggests that requiring students to place fruits and veggies on their trays increases waste, as much as $5 million daily across the more than 30 million school lunch eaters nationwide.

Another issue for many school districts is the cost of compliance in general, and the purchase of whole grains and other such foods in particular. That’s when the Department of Agriculture stepped in.

“USDA’s taking the step of providing flexibility around whole grain percentages – 50% now – also sodium steps going forward,” said Purdue. He contended those proposals were built on input from students.

“And I can identify with this, because I wouldn’t be as big as I am today without chocolate milk,” Purdue joked. “The kids told me the flavored milk — which was limited to non-fat — was not as tasty as they liked. So, we’re allowing 1% flavored milk in our school lunch program.”

Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
Jaleena Davis, Dir. of Food Services, Escambia Co. School District.

The existing school lunch guidelines stem from former first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” healthy living campaign, and were signed into law by then-President Barack Obama.

“I was ecstatic when the meal pattern changed; and one of the reasons is I was the menu planner at the time and I wanted to offer more healthy items,” said Jaleena Davis, who’s now director of food services for the Escambia County School District. But she adds the changes provided a new challenge.

“All of our items had to be whole grain-rich, which means 51% or more whole grains; we haven’t had many problems with the whole grain-rich items,” Davis said. “Students have accepted that. I think the one that we’re having the most problem is the sodium; because there’s no flavor is what they’re telling us.”

The changes go beyond the steam tables and compartmentalized trays. Davis says as the meal patterns changed, so did the manufacturers and food processors.

“They put a lot of money into those new products that are whole grain-rich and lower sodium; and I don’t necessarily see them go back to the beginning on those items,” said Davis. “Because those changes were good. We may actually increase participation a little bit, if we can add back some of the things.”

One of the problems Davis faces is what to provide in the color-coded vegetable subgroup – giving kids what they need, versus what they want. She adds some of the selections have been doomed from the beginning.

“And one of the ones where we’ve had the biggest problem is beans; kids just don’t like beans,” said Davis. “So we’re hoping there will be a little flexibility there, and that maybe they’ll go back to more of a — you have to offer [a] half a cup of vegetable. Doesn’t necessarily matter what color.”

It boils down to a matter of teaching students about nutrition — what’s good for them and what’s not.

“If we don’t educate them on the importance of the different fruits and vegetables that they have to take, it’s going in the trash,” Davis said. “So, it’s creating tons of waste every day at breakfast and lunch for children picking up something because we’re telling them they have to, but they don’t want it.”

The Escambia School District, says Davis, has a couple of programs to help keep at least some food out of the garbage.

“We have some schools that are interested in having a ‘share table,’ which is a great opportunity for students that may want more food,” said Davis. “Another thing we have in place – it hasn’t been used yet – if a food bank is interested in working with a school one-on-one, so that the school can package up whatever was not eaten and give it to the food bank.”

Anyone who’s ever had to wolf down a school lunch to make it to class on time can relate to one suggestion – giving the kids more time to eat. According to the website www.extension.org, extending the lunch period from 20 to 30 minutes, or having recess before lunch, can reduce plate waste by 30% or more.