New lunch rules hard to swal­low for many schools

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

Fried foods and sweets aren’t the only ca­su­al­ties of the gov­ern­ment’s re­vamped school lunch menu.

More than 500 schools have dropped out of the fed­eral school lunch pro­gram since new guide­lines went into ef­fect 12 months ago, a sign of still-smol­der­ing dis­con­tent with the am­bi­tious re­write of what the na­tion’s school­child­ren find on their lunch trays.

Pro­po­nents of the pro­gram — in­clud­ing first lady Michelle Obama, who con­tin­ues to lead a high-pro­file anti-obe­sity cam­paign — say the 524 schools that have with­drawn amount to a drop in the bucket; about 100,000 schools na­tion­wide par­tic­i­pate in the sub­si­dized-lunch pro­gram.

But some an­a­lysts won­der whether the back­lash will con­tinue. Dis­tricts, even those that want to com­ply with the strin­gent stan­dards and serve healthier eats to chil­dren, are run­ning into prob­lems.

“For the peo­ple who have to plan menus, it’s been com­pli­cated,” said Barry Sackin, owner of B. Sackin and As­so­ci­ates, a Cal­i­for­nia-based con­sult­ing firm spe­cial­iz­ing in the school food-ser­vice in­dus­try. “Get­ting whole-grain bread items, find­ing them at a good price range has been chal­leng­ing. Be­cause the menus are so re­stric­tive in terms of their struc­ture, it de­creases flex­i­bil­ity … and there are still re­ports of sig­nif­i­cant waste, par­tic­u­larly with fruits and veg­eta­bles.”

The Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s up­dated lunch plan sets new lim­its on calo­ries and salt and calls for more whole grains, fruits and veg­eta­bles. At least one fruit or veg­etable, for ex­am­ple, must be served with ev­ery meal.

Fail­ure to meet those guide­lines would dis­qual­ify schools from re­ceiv­ing fed­eral money that re­im­burses them for free or low-cost meals served to stu­dents from low­in­come fam­i­lies.

But al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter they went into ef­fect, the rules came un­der fire.

They at­tracted na­tional at­ten­tion last school year when stu­dents com­plained that they ei­ther weren’t get­ting enough to eat or that they were be­ing sub­jected to sub­stan­dard food.

School cafe­te­ria lead­ers com­plained that the new bench­marks would in­crease costs and greatly limit lunch op­tions.

De­spite the pre­scrip­tive stan­dards and the dif­fi­cul­ties meet­ing them, about 80 per­cent of schools say they have com­plied.

Ninety-four per­cent of school dis­tricts ex­pect to meet the re­quire­ments by the end of this school year, ac­cord­ing to a re­port from The Kids’ Safe and Health­ful Foods Project. But com­pli­ance has come at a cost. More than 90 per­cent of schools said they have faced “one or more chal­lenges” in achiev­ing full im­ple­men­ta­tion of the pro­gram. About 90 per­cent re­ported that they had to make at least one change in op­er­a­tions to meet the re­quire­ments.

Such changes in­clude buy­ing new kitchen equip­ment or re­sort­ing to more “ready-toeat” foods from ven­dors.

More than half of the schools said they plan more “scratch” cook­ing, which may re­quire more equip­ment, more space and po­ten­tially more ex­pen­sive in­gre­di­ents, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

“School meal pro­gram bud­gets are tight across the board. Equip­ment pur­chases are a real chal­lenge be­cause they’re big-ticket items. When the bud­get is tight and schools are en­coun­ter­ing higher food costs, it can make those pur­chases more dif­fi­cult,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokes­woman for the School Nu­tri­tion As­so­ci­a­tion, which rep­re­sents more than 55,000 mem­bers pro­vid­ing school meals.

Back­ers of the pro­gram con­cede that there have been bumps in the road but say signs have been en­cour­ag­ing.

Of the 524 schools that have with­drawn from the fed­eral lunch pro­gram, 90 said they did so specif­i­cally be­cause of the new rules. Most of the rest did not give a rea­son.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment — some­times with the prod­ding of Congress — has made sev­eral ad­just­ments to its rules.

At the be­gin­ning of last year, for ex­am­ple, the Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment re­laxed daily and weekly lim­its on meats and grains that some school of­fi­cials said were too hard to fol­low.

In 2011, af­ter the first draft of the stan­dards was re­leased, Congress pro­hib­ited the depart­ment from lim­it­ing pota­toes and french fries.

Some law­mak­ers also fought to pre­serve cafe­te­rias’ abil­ity to serve frozen piz­zas. The tomato paste on a frozen pizza now counts as a veg­etable.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

More than 500 schools have dropped out of the fed­eral school lunch pro­gram since new guide­lines went into ef­fect 12 months ago, a sign of still-smol­der­ing dis­con­tent with the am­bi­tious re­write of what the na­tion’s school­child­ren find on their lunch trays.

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