Stricter nutritional guidelines cause lunchroom issues

With more students qualifying and participating in the National School Lunch Program, those who aren’t in the program are now bringing their own food.

“It’s frustrating because we want to serve these kids, but there are less students in the lunch line,” said Linda Moskalik, Pinckney Community Schools assistant superintendent of finances and operations.

The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child-care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children who qualify for the program. Students are able to apply during anytime of the year.

Through the Hunger-Free Kids Act spearheaded by first lady Michelle Obama, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made the first major changes in school meals in 2012 with nutritional guidelines to help promote a healthier generation of children.

Since then, the USDA has made these guidelines more strict. This year, schools were required to offer lower sodium and for all items to be whole-grain-rich-based.

Schools nationwide are finding sales go down as guidelines become tighter, making it harder for schools to fund the National School Lunch Program.

Pinckney is one of these districts that has noticed a significant decline in sales and an increase in food waste.

Before the program took off, food sales at Pinckney during the 2011-2012 school year were roughly $400,443. The next school year, which was the first year these requirements were effective nationwide, Pinckney’s lunch sales dropped to $377,200, or 5.8 percent. During the 2013-2014 school year, they dropped an additional 4 percent.

Brighton High School senior Seth Dorais and fellow students are served lunch at the school's cafeteria, which offers free or reduced-cost meals.(Photo: GILLIS BENEDICT/DAILY PRESS & ARGUS)

Brighton High School senior Seth Dorais and fellow students are served lunch at the school’s cafeteria, which offers free or reduced-cost meals.(Photo: GILLIS BENEDICT/DAILY PRESS & ARGUS)

“It’s disappointing to see these numbers continue to drop,” Moskalik said.

When a student does purchase a lunch, he or she is required to take everything that’s offered in order for the school to get reimbursed. However, the student doesn’t have to eat it all, which has resulted in more food waste.

“As soon as they leave the lunch line, they will throw the food right in the garbage, which is a waste of food,” Moskalik said.

These problems, along with many others, is something School Nutrition Association Director of Media Relations Diane Pratt-Heavener is addressing with Congress and the USDA. The association is a national organization of school nutrition professionals advocating for healthier school meals.

While the association supports the federal nutrition standards for school meals, the organization is currently requesting from Congress and the USDA more flexibility under the more stringent requirements to help students adjust to healthier meals and protect the financial stability of school meal programs.

“We’ve noticed how complicated and costly it has become over the years, and it hasn’t got much better,” Pratt-Heavener said.

As of now, Congress has received the request, Pratt-Heavener said.

Specifically, the association has asked the USDA and Congress to:

  • Maintain the 2012 requirements that half of the food options be whole-grain-rich opposed to requiring all items on the menu whole-grain-rich.
  • Maintain Target 1 sodium levels and suspend further reductions until scientific research supports them.
  • Avoid food waste by offering instead of requiring students to take a fruit or vegetable and still be fully reimbursed.
  • Allow healthy items on the meal line to be sold a la carte.

“We believe this will be a step in the right direction to help eliminate some of these recurring issues,” she said. “We want to see more kids buying school lunches instead of packing.”

Outside the lunchroom

Because schools aren’t required to check students’ packed lunches, students can bring whatever they want.

“That is probably a main component to why students are packing more and not buying lunches because they can eat food they actually want to eat,” said Amy Verhelle-Smith, Fowlerville Community Schools food director.

They could be bringing items such as pop or candy bars, for instance.

“It contradicts the whole concept of eating healthy and students aren’t buying our lunches as much, which causes a problem,” Verhelle-Smith added.

“Another piece to this puzzle is that schools may not have the items they want to see because manufacturers aren’t keeping up with the supply and demand fast enough,” Pratt-Heavener said.

The Howell Public Schools district experiences this sort of struggle, said Sharon Lenard, the district’ food director.

“It’s not too much a problem, but I wish there was a little flexibility to allow manufacturers to catch up,” Lenard said.

Richard Browder, Brighton Area Schools food director, also would like more flexibility.

“The overall supply-and-demand issue is probably the biggest battle right now,” said Browder. “We are three months into school with the new requirements, and manufacturers don’t have what we need when we need it.”

This is where Pratt-Heavener hopes the School Nutrition Association’s request to the USDA and Congress will soon come into play.

“I hope they see how much schools are struggling and take it into consideration,” she said.

However, Verhelle-Smith said the USDA has become more flexible with taking more fruits and vegetables.

“As long as they meet the calorie requirements, they can pile on more produce, which is nice,” Verhelle-Smith said.

While Verhelle-Smith would like students to continue to buy lunches, she said she would rather see that they are aware of the choices to decide for themselves.

“You can’t take away their choices; as long as they know what is available, they can buy lunch or bring something from home,” she said.