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Letter From the Editor: The NSLP Dropouts

Opinion

A suburban Chicago school superintendent has obtained permission from his board of directors to withdraw from the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

David Schuler, who runs Township High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, IL, told Boston public radio station WBUR that his district will be better off without the approximately $900,000 from federal taxpayers it’s been getting from participating in the NSLP.

The reason is that, by cutting the strings with NSLP, the Illinois school district will also free itself from regulatory burdens recently imposed by Congress, and, some are quick to add, First Lady Michelle Obama. The First Lady was a big promoter of the 2010 Healthy Hungry Free Kids Act, which Congress passed to have USDA impose new nutritional standards in as many as 100,000 schools eligible to participate in the NSLP.

While Superintendent Schuler does one of the better jobs of articulating why his district has fired USDA, a federal government report not long ago noted that the Illinois district may not be that unusual. USDA’s regulatory snarl is so severe that both the number of students and school districts enrolled in the NSLP are down. Estimates are that as many as one million fewer students are enrolled in the NSLP today than at its peak when the Hunger Free Kids Act was adopted.

The think tanks and other groups involved in nutrition are clearly worried that local political pressure is going to bring changes in Congress, and that could begin to happen as early as this week. It pits local districts, which have concerns about the massive food waste being generated daily by following the regulations, against groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which says that 90 percent of the districts do comply with federal dictates.

It should be pointed out that there are many parts to this and side agendas such as Maine potato farmers wanting more of their product served in schools. However, Township High’s withdrawal raises the possibility that the NSLP has gone into permanent decline. The overall debate is probably best followed through those involved such as the School Nutrition Association, which wants changes, and CSPI, which is circulating a petition supporting the status quo.

This issue is going to get attention in Congress beginning this week and continuing into the summer. It will be interesting to see if, in the long run, districts voting with their feet become more important than the rulemakers. In this space, we’ve previously gone on record about the immoral amount of food waste being experienced at schools in the NSLP because of pointy-headed regulations requiring kids to take food they have no intention of eating.

If this was intended as an experiment in behavior modification, it ain’t working. Making changes to reduce food waste are not “weakening” the regulations, and don’t say it’s part of a “big food” agenda because that makes no sense. Congress just needs to focus on what works.

The Arlington Heights, IL, district will continue its free and reduced meal offerings. It plans to recoup the lost $900,000 in federal money through a la carte sales and new offerings. The district anticipates that withdrawing from the NSLP will keep more kids on campus for lunch.

Schuler says that those who wrote the NSLP regulations had “wonderful intentions,” but they just don’t work in the real world.

Here are some of the highlights of the WBUR interview with the superintendent:

Why the district withdrew from the NSLP.

“We just decided that with the regulations required for the new food lunch program, our students were not going to be eating the food, they were going to be throwing the food away. And we’re close enough with our high schools that kids could leave the campus, walk across the street to a fast food restaurant or a convenience store, where they’re going to be purchasing food that’s much less healthier than we can offer in the district. So we’re going to be offering very healthy, well-balanced, nutritious meals, but just ones that also taste good.”

Why the NSLP is not working for students.

“It really comes down to the amount. You know, like, a hard-boiled egg can no longer be served because it’s too high in fat. Skim milk over 12 ounces can’t be served. The portion sizes are much smaller than in the past. So for high school athletes who are looking to eat and be full, it’s just not working for us.”

On how to help students make  good choices in their diets

“We would rather provide an educational experience for our students for when they go through the lunch line. So what they will see is every food that they can choose from will have a green, a yellow or a red dot. Green means totally healthy, you can eat as much as you’d like. Yellow means, you know, maybe two or three servings a week. Red, you can have this, but only every now and then. Rather than just leaving campus and going and buying a bag of chips or grabbing a burger at the fast food restaurant, helping educate them from a nutritional standpoint.”

© Food Safety News
  • Teresa Geib Bacon

    I am not a numbers person but worked in the schools and am glad to hear this. Schools don’t make money off the reg meals per say, but count on junk food ala carte items which MS and HS live on. Its all JUNK food kids eat, processed crap. anything to get out of Govt control is a good thing.

    • BarryThoele

      So you think making morte junk food available to kids is a better way of getting them to eat better foods?
      School is not a “for profit” enterprise but during the Reagan era we recategorised what we label as food. Ketchup while made from tomatoes is not a nutritious vegetable. But it does make some corporation money so lets do it.
      Self serving industry under the guise of altruism has placed vending machines selling pop and energy drinks as an alternative to water. This has caused disruptions in classrooms because of sugar and caffeine overload. Rotten teeth, bad digestion and behavior problems make for good classroom experiences.

      • Mandy Leetch

        This is a valid concern, but what about the fact that the school lunch program is based on bad nutritional science and counts tons of crap as healthy that it shouldn’t? More schools should get involved with growing initiatives, teaching students to garden and appreciate fresh fruits and veggies!

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    I expect to see a school that offers sugar drinks and fat laden pseudo-burgers with fries.

    All the “regulation” is attempting to do is improve kids’ health–something parents no longer take responsibility for. And it’s something this school evidently can’t handle.

    Too bad it’s so incompetent, as the kids will suffer.

    • Mandy Leetch

      Don’t knock fat! The burger (if it’s grassfed, which, granted, it wouldn’t be in this case) is better for your body than the bun.

  • O_Scotty

    I think this is a real opportunity for some psychologist masters or doctorate thesis to run a number of experiments – and even get lots of grant money for some schools to boot. Try things like ‘healthy’ lunch lines & ‘junk food’ lines; then correlate who goes thru which line with GPA, health measurements, sick days, truancy record, etc. See what works to entice kids to the healthy line. Of course when you’re trying to overcome very real addictions comparable to hard drugs it’s an uphill battle.
    Also offer real courses in real nutrition – you’ll have to make it interesting tho. We know if you really want to mess it up, leave it to Washington beaurocrats.

    • Mandy Leetch

      Teaching kids to grow food is what entices them to make healthy choices. :)

  • MaryFinelli

    Why don’t they stay in the program and employ the color coding system?

  • Ken Kailing

    NSPL is another mistake like “no child left
    behind.” Well intended but originating at the top and accumulating
    bureaucratic overburden from the start; invested in by special interest
    (like Walmart) to improve social collateral but without real
    health conscience, organized and lead by people lacking real (organic)
    experience in food production and processing — with of course too many
    ideological bean counters rather then people of real moral fiber. The
    program is failing! A successful organization change to good food needs
    to occur at the grass roots. Every school and every socio-economic (and
    racial) situation is different. But once again, big government has made
    the real program under all the advertising sterile by not investing
    sufficiently in those most effected at the base.

    Our President
    worked in community development in hard pressed areas of Chicago and
    still he can’t get beyond his top-down, corporate reliance in government
    programing. The only proven way for improving local food conditions of
    any kind is to put qualified people in the communities most in need and
    to work one school (or institution) at a time by investing in the people
    who run them. It’s how the “New Deal” worked, it is what we did with
    Vista in the 60s, and it is the only thing that will work now. We need
    to go back to locally based empowerment and strong local leadership.

    Unfortunately, every active program originating in our Congress; well,
    what little remains, seems determined to be autocratic and is suffering
    extreme bureaucratic overload — ideas by highbrows with little merit of
    real performance. In contrast, the limited success of Obama Care is now
    depending on the skill of local doctors to join up into their own
    groups — smart ones knowing their environments and conserving and
    shearing their resources succeed; the profit driven, selfish ones fail.
    Corporate influence is by nature top heavy. What we need to go back to
    is an independent strong democratic government that serves the people
    and rid ourselves of these self-directed corporate hybrids. Good
    government with strong leadership can work; it must!

    • rc

      Good govt with strong leadership can work? Keep dreaming.

  • Mandy Leetch

    No hard boiled eggs?! Wtf is wrong with the USDA?! What about the fact that healthy fats are one of the best things for you? That eggs are one of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet? That skin milk is loaded with aspertame to keep the fat content down but artificial sweeteners go hand in hand with obesity?! Aaaaaaaargh!

    • jeepwonder

      It isn’t about the food, it’s about the control.

  • Lavender

    This program is bonkers. They limit the amounts of food the kids can eat so much that they are leaving lunch still hungry. I thought the point was to feed kids, not starve them. How are they supposed to learn when they are hungry? I’m not sure of the exact amount but 4g of protein per meal is just not enough for some kids, such as where I grew up in rural Maine where high schoolers are often 6 feet tall and need a large meal just to be satisfied. News flash: Maine kids DO eat potatoes often. It’s a staple because it’s local food. The way it should be. That’s why they want more potatoes in school! Nothing wrong with that! You have to take into account what is typical for a family to serve at meals in an area – why would kids be interested in eating food at school that is terribly different from what they are served at home?? That is where the waste is coming from. Common sense! And I may be mistaken but I believe bringing your own lunch to school is not allowed? Absolutely ridiculous! It’s a public school, and a parent ALWAYS has the right to provide food for their child. I can understand the bad cases where the kid comes to school with only a bag of potato chips from home, but they should be fine if they are offered a nice full plate from the school instead. But parents who send their kids with healthier meals from home than the school can provide should absolutely be allowed to. The USDA has been corrupt and foolishly bureaucratic for years, this is just their latest idiocy. Not to mention Congress.. ugh. You say it’s ridiculous to think this program is influenced by “Big Food” corporations? Are you blind? Every law that is passed is lobbied brutally by corporations, and I’d bet anything this one was as well. To say they don’t have a hand in it is incredibly naive. They have their hands in every single thing this country does nowadays. This is just the latest failing of a too big, bureaucratic, controlling, lazy, corrupt government. Their noses don’t belong anywhere near our children’s plates. The solution to school lunch involves better science from real nutritionists combined with traditional wisdom (Eggs are NOT bad for you!!!!!!!!!!! Neither is real butter!!!!), input from local communities and families (because every place has different customs, culture, demographics, & economics, and one-size-fits-all laws don’t work), localized control, and flexibility to accommodate every child in a productive, educational, appealing way (to the child, parents, and school administration). Local farms should absolutely be utilized, and programs to teach kids to grow organic food at school are even better.