2012-09-20 / Local & State

New School Nutrition Standards Recipe For Problems

By C. Ryan Barber

READING EAGLE

READING, Pa. (AP) – In his gut, Kurt Myers knows when a student arrives at school on an empty stomach.

He can see it on a cold Monday morning in the coat that remains zipped and the hat that stays pulled down, in the rush to eat school breakfast as if it’s the student’s first meal in days.

And in the Reading School District, where 92 percent of students received free or reduced-price meals in 2011- 12, Myers knows it doesn”t take a food services director such as himself to realize that “when a student looks like he hasn’t eaten all weekend, he probably hasn’t eaten all weekend.”

For that reason, Myers traditionally has had the district offer more than the required servings of protein at lunch, knowing it could be the last filling meal of the day for many students.

But this year, new lunch standards set by the national Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act are changing the way lunches are served and limiting the amount of protein city schools can serve.

Approved in 2010 and championed by first lady Michelle Obama, the law handed the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to mandate a menu makeover for 2012-13, introducing new grain and protein restrictions and more fruits and vegetables.

Good intent, tough sell

Berks County food service administrators have welcomed the law in spirit, embracing its combination of whole grains, fruits and vegetables as a way to combat childhood obesity.

But they are concerned that the act could prove a recipe for wasted food that will leave students anything but hunger-free even as it raises the average Berks school lunch price by 11 cents, from $2.22 to $2.33.

“If Johnny gets threequarters of a cup of carrots and doesn’t like carrots, he’s going to dump the carrots in the trash,” Myers said. “He’s going to go home. He’s going to be hungry, and he’s going to plop on the couch and bust open a bag of chips.”

And if Johnny receives free or reduced-price lunches and refuses to take a fruit or vegetable, the district will not receive its government reimbursement for the meal.

However, for every meal that complies with the new requirements, schools can receive an extra reimbursement of 6 cents, even if a student pays the full price.

In the Muhlenberg School District, food services coordinator Tony Brochu Jr. already is seeing and hearing, the law’s effects. Within the first week of school, and with five chicken nuggets on his plate, a high school student turned to Brochu and asked, “Is this it?”

And an elementary parent sent an email that read, “I know there were sides that went with that, but I cannot believe that the school expects the children to have a full stomach on only three chicken nuggets.”

The refrain is one that Vonda Cooke, the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s food and nutrition director, said she has heard before.

Cooke said she understands that for some students, school lunch is the only substantive meal of the day. It will be important, she said, to steer those students into school-based snack programs or after-school food programs offered by community or child care facilities.

But Cooke noted that children need to learn to put fruits and vegetables, rather than proteins, at the center of a meal. Students can purchase more food at higher a la carte prices, but Cooke hopes the revised standards will train them to fill up on fruits and vegetables – and not just at lunch.

“That comes back to educating students on what is an acceptable snack to have, on what is a good dinner to have,” she said. “I don’t think it’s unrealistic at all to have a student go home hungry.

“One of the things we have taken into consideration is we are a snacking population.”

Changes driving price

Driven partly by the requirement to offer both a fruit and vegetable, prices are rising to better reflect the cost of fixing a meal.

The law urges school districts charging less than $2.51 a lunch to increase the price, preventing them from subsidizing paid meals with government reimbursements for free and reducedpriced meals.

“ The meal should be charged so that the school isn’t losing money on the meal,” Cooke said. “That reimbursement should not be lowering the quality of the food because schools are trying to get the reimbursement to cover the paid meals as well.

To help cover the higher food costs, a school district can be certified as complying with the standards and receive a 6-cent reimbursement for every meal that meets the new requirements.

But based on even conservative estimates, Myers said that 6-cent reimbursement still will leave him with a $250,000 budget gap.

To close it, Myers and other food service directors said they will have to closely track how much students are taking of each option and plan accordingly.

Some pay more for less

In the Wilson School District, the new secondary school lunch price of $2.50 has forced food services coordinator Peggy Umbenhauer to charge paying students more for less.

Umbenhauer said the new requirements have led to weeks of tweaking the menu and raising lunch prices across the board by 10 cents.

She said she has particular concerns about the high school.

“They want to be treated like adults, and I’m concerned that they’re going to think we’re being stingy,” Umbenhauer said.

Twin Valley, though, has lowered the price of its most popular high school lunch, even as food costs have gone up, food services director Mike McKinney said.

In July the school board voted on a $2.25 lunch price, a 35-cent discount from the $2.60 lunch preferred by most high school students but a 30-cent increase over the less-popular value meal.

McKinney isn’t sold on the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, particularly not when it limits high school students to 10-12 ounces of grains and proteins per week.

“With the restrictions I have now, I don’t think I can put a value out there for $2.60 respecting the parents’ money,” McKinney said.

For athletes especially, he worries the law will backfire, forcing them to “go someplace down the road – to Mc- Donald’s, to Burger King, to Wendy’s, to Roy Rogers – and get something that’s a cheap boost of carbs.”

“And so, have we improved what they’re eating?” McKinney wondered. “Yes and no.”

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