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Letter From the Editor: School Lunch Dropouts

Opinion

This past week probably saw the first-ever national political coverage of an annual meeting of the School Nutrition Association, which went down in Boston. Most everybody knows SNA is the organization of about 55,000 who manage and direct the school lunch (and some breakfast) programs in as many as 100,000 U.S. schools.

The reason this group comes in for such attention now is because it wants Congress to ease new federal nutrition standards and other regulations on schools participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). It’s the only major federal lobbying organization that might be able to focus what’s  become something of a grassroots uprising to some of these changes at the local level. When someone in the administration refers to the “complaining voices” about the nutrition standards, they are talking about SNA.

Most all others who lobby about nutrition policy want USDA to hold the line and take new nutrition standards and regulatory controls to their full implementation stage for the 2014-15 school year and then lose no ground when the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act is re-authorized by Congress in 2015. Their campaign is pretty simple. Anyone who wants changes wants to “bring back junk food in the schools.”

The political media at the SNA meeting were on the lookout only for the symbolic. The White House East Wing offered to send their chef/policy guy and SNA passed on the offer. For the national media, that was a snub to the First Lady. It also depicted SNA as a food industry whore out to mainline children with surgery drinks and Doritos because some examples of “junk food” could be found among 400 trade show booths at the event. (SNA does promote food safety in the school lunch program, which, of course, got no attention.)

This is one of those national political disputes that’s only likely to become more polarized as time passes. One can only imagine the rhetoric that will be flying a year from now if both the House and Senate are controlled by the GOP and the current administration is counting its days.

While the national political media are having all the fun, this scribe is still trying to understand these new nutritional standards and how they are going down in the real world. This week, it occurred to me that what’s missing is the simple understanding that the NSLP is entirely voluntary. Throughout its history, until very recently, enrollments in the NSLP only increased.

But now, in scattered reports almost entirely in local newspapers, there are reports of dropouts. The ones heading to the exit door all seem to be leaving the once-popular federal program for reasons involving budgets, menus, food waste and local control.

Among the latest to drop out was the Colorado’s Douglas County School District. The state’s third-largest school district, with more than 60,000 students, left the NSLP before SNA left Boston. The school board simply decided NSLP revenue comes nowhere near the costs the district would assume if it were to satisfy the federal demands. Put another way, the district is not about to give up $3 million it makes from keeping its nine Subway franchises open on its high school campuses.

But up front in the information that went to the Douglas County Board was this:

“These USDA regulations include the following:

  • FAT less than or equal to 35 percent of total calories
  • SAT FAT less than or equal to 10 percent of total calories
  • TRANS FAT 0 percent
  • SUGAR less than or equal to 35 percent of weight of total sugars
  • SODIUM less than or equal to 480 mg Entrée, less than or equal to 230 mg Snack/Sides until 2016 then less than or equal to 200 mg
  • CALORIES less than or equal to 350 per Entrée, and/or less than or equal to 200 per Snack/Sides”

Nutrition Action, the health letter published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), this month provides readers with three recipes from its “healthy cook.” Only the Chicken Shawarma Lettuce Wraps at 310 calories per serving would meet the NSLP nutrition standards.  CSPI’s Fish Lettuce Tacos at 440 calories per serving and Tofu Lettuce Cups at 480 are too much for a NSLP menu.

CSPI, which probably wouldn’t want their dishes called “junk food,” does an admirable job of reducing sodium in their recipes by using various mixes of spices, lime juice, kosher salt and the like for taste. Yet only one of the three, again the Chicken Shawarma Lettuce Wraps, make the cut for sodium. CSPI, by the way, is a big supporter of the new school nutrition standards.

Douglas County freed its high schools of those rules just by deciding not to take USDA’s money. Brent Craig, the district’s nutrition services director, had no trouble getting his board to go along with the recommendation to run USDA off its high school campuses.

The healthy food movement got its hold in the DCSD almost a decade ago as part of the district’s wellness program, and  Craig says they prefer what they’ve developed on their own to the rules being promulgated by USDA.

“I do believe we need to fight obesity,” he says. “I do believe we need to feed healthy meals, but I believe in the balanced approach.”

His goal is to offer healthy and palatable food across all campuses without losing money. They’ve already learned a lot about how far they can go without driving their customers off campus. Take, for example, their duel with that Colorado favorite, the burrito. It’s said that it’s easier to have a burrito delivered in Colorado than a pizza. They are immediately available just about everywhere 24/7.

The DCSD’s healthy food project took on the commercially available burritos, and they’ve view it as success. “Chef Doug” came up with a DCSD burrito with 668 calories, 31 grams of fat (41 percent) and 1,283 milligrams of sodium. Those are dramatic reductions from the typical commercial burrito’s 1,060 calories, 46 grams of fat (38 percent) and 2,240 mg of sodium, but not low enough for the NSLP.

High school students in the district south of Denver like the “Chef Doug” burrito. Craig does not want to go with “little teeny” burritos to make the calorie limit and pulling back any more on the sodium loses flavor quality. He knows doing that would send his kids back to commercial options.

In a 30-slide PowerPoint presentation to the school board, Craig went through the district’s history of making its school nutrition program part of the district’s wellness program. It set out to reduce sugar and fat. It went to using only lean beef and chicken breasts instead of what he called “processed parts.” It went with more fresh fruits and vegetables and increased whole grains.

DCSD is making school lunches from scratch and has experimented with how it might meet the dictates coming out of USDA. A bare-bones pizza using 100-percent part-skim Mozzarella cheese came close, but it still puts up numbers that are over the limits.

For nutrition directors such as Craig, menus and budgets are the driving realities. High school students who decide the meals in the cafeteria suck will quickly be down the road looking for something tastier.

So Craig turned down a big chunk of the about $2.2 million DCSD was getting from the NSLP and maybe all of it after next school year if the district opts to remove the middle and elementary schools, too.

In the mix of menu dictates and budget impacts and USDA wanting to police all food and beverage sales in all schools enrolled in the NSLP from 12:01 a.m. to 30 minutes after school each day — well, it just became too much for this district. Food sold a la carte, in school stores, snack bars, and club sales and through fundraisers would have all fallen under the jurisdiction of USDA, including those Subway outlets.

This is a school district with a school and community culture involving extracurricular activities often funded by school boosters and parents. The DCSD board president says the new NSLP regulations “smacks of nanny state interference” and he wonders how long it will be before USDA wants to control what parents put in school lunch bags. “Are they going to come and monitor your kitchen?” he asked.

If Craig gives the NSLP an exit interview, he will be able to tell them that this school district has the financial capacity to see that at-risk kids will still get free and reduced-cost lunches. The NSLP for some is now more of a cost than a benefit for at least some  schools.

Right before DCSD took the exit, a local school board removed the C.W. Baker High School in Baldwinsville, NY, from the NSLP.

Maybe only the rich schools will drop out. How many will that be? At this point, nobody knows. As for the ones that do, we’re just going to have to keep our eyes on those community newspapers that carry the school lunch menus and report on school board meetings.

© Food Safety News
  • Teresa Geib Bacon

    What a great thing they did taking that stand. Wonder what all food will be served I guess as nothing is cooked in kitchens, no equip anymore. I wish them the BEST!

    • Janine

      TGB. From the article: “DCSD is making school lunches from scratch….” Pretty amazing, huh? But how many poorer districts can afford to do that?

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    “The DCSD’s healthy food project took on the commercially available
    burritos, and they’ve view it as success. “Chef Doug” came up with a
    DCSD burrito with 668 calories, 31 grams of fat (41 percent) and 1,283
    milligrams of sodium. Those are dramatic reductions from the typical
    commercial burrito’s 1,060 calories, 46 grams of fat (38 percent) and
    2,240 mg of sodium, but not low enough for the NSLP.”

    And you actually think this is good? You support this?

    Seems to me others aren’t so incapable of creating healthy but tasty meals. Perhaps DCSD needs to hire capable people, instead of saying that a 668 calorie burrito for kids is the way to go.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-f-jacobson/healthy-school-lunches_b_4610340.html

    Seems Boulder doesn’t have problems

    http://thenationshealth.aphapublications.org/content/44/4/1.3.long

    And isn’t SNA the group that had members pose with Chester the Cheetos mascot?

    http://www.foodpolitics.com/2014/07/school-nutrition-association-junk-foods-galore-but-they-meet-usdas-nutrition-standards/

    • LouWho

      The middle and elementary schools in DCSD are currently still included in the program according to how this article is written, which is what the boulder elementary school article talked about. Much of this article focuses on the changes made to HIGH SCHOOL. And reading about Boulder they must be loaded so does the NSLP money even help? Because I’m sure it’s not buying organic pork ribs for schools in poor communities… Ultimately though, if you have a problem with it, teach your kids what to eat. Don’t provide them money to buy lunch at school and make their lunches with them while discussing how everything fits together health wise, maybe throw in a food safety or agricultural lesson. 5 minutes a night before bed or in the morning before work.

      • Michael Bulger

        That sounds like a great plan for families who can afford it and are educated in food and nutrition.

        • LouWho

          I agree that can be a challenge but it’s still possible even if you can’t afford to make the lunches, to talk to your kids about good food. And if you don’t have the money to make lunches then i’m unsure why “extras” like a la cart, vending machine items, etc. are even an issue since they would cost outside of the pre-determined “meal”.
          Information on agriculture, healthy food choices, keeping food safe, etc. can be obtained from teachers, doctors, libraries, school nurses and lots of other free outlets that can even be accessed via smartphone and with very little extra effort required aside from the time it takes to talk with your child. In this information age all it takes it the effort to find these things. Don’t be cynical, make suggestions.

          • Michael Bulger

            I’m not being cynical. My suggestion is that the standards set by USDA should be upheld, and schools should strive to create a healthier food environment.

            It’s not cynical to say that many kids do not have a supportive home or a positive adult role model. That’s the unfortunate reality. Further, even kids from great homes with knowledgable adults are still just kids. It’s the responsibility of the schools to provide a healthy place for them to learn and not allow junk food marketers to run amok.

          • LouWho

            I agree. Your response struck me as being both annoyed at my post and the program itself so I mistook your point.
            However this program is running into issues and it’s not perfect as is. And that was my point, if you have an issue with the program, or with what your high schoolers are eating/being offered than take some ownership. I think it’s sad that USDA has to be the one to make schools uphold the idea of healthy food. But if they aren’t getting money from somewhere for healthy food, they take the promotional money as well as revenue that they get from selling chips rather than carrots.
            And unfortunately you’re right that not everyone has a supportive family or even one that gives them much time or attention. To my earlier comment about education though – it’s everywhere for those that really do want it. For example WIC and SNAP programs both employee nutritionists and have scads of flyers and pamphlets available on nutrition free of charge. I just wish more people were interested in the information.

          • Michael Bulger

            I apologize that I came across as rude. I see how my response was not polite.

            I actually work to help educate kids and adults about healthy eating. I’m regularly reminded that even those that are very interested in healthy eating are not as knowledgeable as you might expect someone to be in this day and age. That’s not to insult anyone, but just to illustrate that our areas of expertise and interest are not always the same. I’m care deeply about the safety of my car, but I’m not an expert when it comes to automobile computers or mechanics. I rely on people I trust, plus laws and regulations, to keep me safe.

            I guess my overall point is that we are a long way from being able to blame personal disinterest for poor dietary choices. At some point, institutions such as schools need to take responsibility for the environment they are creating in their cafeterias and hallways.

            As I pointed out in my other comments, it appears that DCSD is shrinking away from the regulations because they have been misinformed about the requirements. As I understand it, the vast majority of schools are going forward with the new standards, and the meals are getting generally positive reviews from students (not historically easy for any school meal!).

    • Joe Blow

      Shelly,

      At least it is a start. You do have to admit the standards are very tight/rigorous and difficult to meet if they wish to have food the students will continue to eat. Are there exceptions, such as what you point out? Sure…but better Chef Doug decides to make a more nutritious burrito than to just do nothing, right?

      • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

        That is not a particularly healthy food item, not with those sodium and fat levels. About the only positive thing you can say about it is, yeah, it could be worse.

        The point this school is missing is that you can give kids food they’ll like and it doesn’t have to be the thing they eat all the time. And there are even healthy burrito options, too.

        Speaking of which, the guidelines that Dan mentions in this article, don’t match the guidelines I’m seeing at the USDA. Do I have an incorrect reference, or is Dan incorrect?

        http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/Meal_Pattern_USDA_Foods_Chart_Sept2013.pdf

        • Michael Bulger

          It looks like Dan is quoting the DCSD. It does appear that they have the incorrect figures for the calorie and sodium limits.

          They don’t match the USDA link you provide, nor do they match this USDA webpage: http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/LAC_03-06-12_0.pdf

          DCSD also appears to be incorrect when I look at this additional USDA resource: http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/LAC_03-06-12_0.pdf .

          Maybe the sodium levels that DCSD claims it would be required to meet match up with the USDA’s year 2022 goal, but then why does the DCSD claim about calorie levels seem to be pulled out of thin air?

          Based on the USDA’s stated requirements (and not the apparent mistake of DCSD), Chef Doug’s Burrito actually comes very, very, very close to meeting the USDA standards for calories and sodium. Chef Doug is 8 mg over in the sodium category. That’s a minuscule amount. For calories, Doug would only need to shave off 18 kcal to meet the standards. That is a similarly minuscule amount.

          Further, the CSPI recipes that Dan claims are outside of the the USDA limits are, in fact, well within the limits.

          Dan, can you follow up on this? Apparently, DCSD is making sweeping policy decisions (and splendidly designed powerpoint presentations) based on an error.

  • flame

    If food is prepared in a way that is favorable/tasty and presented to the younger students in a certain way they will eat it and not go hungry. It’s all about how it’s prepared/cooked and presented. High school students should have a wide variety of healthy foods(including veggies and fruits) ‘they’ like and a ‘couple’ of unhealthy foods if they’re willingly to pay for out of their pockets. Not sugary drinks allowed to be sold on the school grounds/campuses. Only water, milk, non-dairy milk like soy, almond, coconut milk etc. ps Allow them to get more of what they like and less and/or none of what they don’t like by offering alternatives. That way you cut down on waste by not being eaten and/or food being thrown away untouched. We all know that most so-called junk food, highly processed food, and foods full of sweeteners both natural and artificial, loaded with unhealthy fats, artificial flavoring, colorings and other unhealthy additives isn’t good for anyone. So start by educating them about what foods are healthy and which ones aren’t and the consequences and/or benefits of eating healthy or unhealthy as you provide healthier foods and/or food choices.

  • JoAnne Paul Robinett

    Thank you, Dan, for looking at so many viewpoints and sources for this article. I enjoyed learning facts from it.

  • Lwaisvisz

    Lets compare Chef Doug’s “Burrito” to a Big Mac
    Calories: “B” = 668 calories; BM = 550
    Fat: “B” = 31 grams (41%); BM = 29 grams (45%)
    Sodium: “B” = 1283 mg; BM = 970 mg
    Note, the only reason Chef Doug winds on the % fat is due to the CALORIES.
    Maybe the school districts should make custom Big Macs instead??