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.