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Congress chews over the pros and cons of school lunch regulations

In May, students at Tuckaseegee Elementary School in Charlotte had a U.S. Senator passing out broccoli and corn in the lunch line —

the latest example of those in Washington, D.C. taking a close look at what’s on school lunch trays.

Sen. Thom Tillis, a member of the U.S. Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, helped serve lunch at Tuckaseegee to see firsthand the mealtime concerns of educators and students. Tillis, along with many other Republican legislators, believes that schools should have more flexibility to determine what should be on their menus.

As Congress gears up to reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the debates over school lunch programs — and if they’re healthy and progressive or inedible and wasteful — have already started.

“While big government nutrition programs are well intentioned, they’re lacking flexibility and being forced upon our schools at the local level in a manner that’s simply counterproductive. Children are throwing away their food and going home hungry, which is a problem that should be nonexistent,” Tillis said in a statement after his visit. “After meeting with students and receiving their input on school lunches, it’s abundantly clear that fresher, more appetizing foods will help prevent empty stomachs and provide our children with the nutrition they need to do well in school.”

The current law, which determines federal standards for school breakfast and lunch, among other programs, is set to expire on Sept. 30. The most-recent federal regulations, championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, are meant to make school meals healthier and stem childhood obesity — with menus including whole grain foods, fat-free or low-fat milk, and increased fruit and vegetables offerings, including dark leafy greens.

But some educators and legislators say that the healthy meals don’t always taste good, and students aren’t always eating what’s on their tray, despite requirements that students take a half-cup of fruit and vegetables with every meal.

“Any time you mandate a child and tell them they have to do something, there’s a good chance they’re not going to do it,” said Fred Gilbert, area supervisor of school nutrition for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Margaret Cameron, a school dietitian at CMS, said she often sees whole apples in trashcans or a whole-grain pizza with two bites taken out of it.

Students, she said, were not eased into the new requirements. As educators, “we want them to develop a sense of healthy choice,” Cameron said. If students don’t have ownership of what they choose to eat in the lunch line, she said, they might not learn how to make healthy choices outside of school.

School districts can request a federal waiver to switch out a whole-grain food item, depending on what their students most often reject, Gilbert said. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, whole-grain biscuits are being replaced with white flour biscuits, Cameron said. She said students weren’t accepting the once-popular breakfast item after a whole year of implementing the whole-grain recipe.

In a recent congressional staff briefing hosted by the School Nutrition Association, Lynn Harvey, chief of school nutrition services for North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction, testified about the cost of the state’s compliance with the federal standards (all school meal programs in North Carolina have been in compliance since 2013).

In a statement released beforehand, she said that North Carolina has experienced a 5 percent decline in student lunch participation due to the new standards — despite an increase in student enrollment. Breakfast participation is down in more than half of N.C. school districts, she said.

And with the new federal snacks requirements, a la carte revenue is down by $20 million across the state. “Food costs and plate waste are up significantly, but schools have fewer resources to manage those losses,” Harvey said.

A few days later, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack answered questions from members of the House’s education committee for more than two hours. He defended the federal regulations, saying that studies have shown that food waste in schools hasn’t increased since the standards were unrolled and that chefs across the country are working to make school lunches more innovative and tasty.

Still, North Carolina’s Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican, told Vilsack that the Department of Agriculture had a one-size-fits-all attitude, and gave permission rather than letting schools make choices for themselves.

“I wonder, have you tried to put the employees in the Department of Agriculture on the school lunch program for a week or two to see how they respond to it?” she asked. “I think it would be an interesting experiment.”

Editor’s Note:  I asked No Child Hungry to comment on this article.

Kids who eat a free or reduced price (FRP) school lunch also need breakfast at school. This group of kids depends on school meals as their daily source of nutrition. However, out of the 2,423 North Carolina public schools that served breakfast in March 2015 only 23 percent of them served breakfast to more than 70 percent of their FRP lunch eaters.

The kids that eat a free or reduced price lunch and do not eat breakfast comprise what is referred to as the “Breakfast Gap.”

The kids in the “Breakfast Gap” need to eat breakfast at school. 

There are many North Carolina students living in poverty in families struggling to make ends meet who likely do not eat a healthy breakfast before school.

Hungry children have trouble concentrating, get more headaches and infections, are more likely to be hospitalized, struggle with obesity, and are less likely to perform well on athletic fields and in classrooms.

It’s simply much harder for children at risk of hunger to thrive.

Child nutrition programs face financial difficulties sometimes beyond their control…but, increased meal participation and long-term exposure to better nutritional habits can be achieved when a school serves breakfast differently making it more accessible to all children. All innovative methods of serving breakfast such as Breakfast in the Classroom, Grab and Go, or Second Chance Breakfast have one main objective:

To take the children to the food or the food to the children. 

here we go

Here are some changes a school can expect to see with increased breakfast participation:

decreases in student absence,

decreases in student tardiness,

increase in student focus,

decrease in discipline referrals,

fewer visits to the school nurse, and

more parents pleased with school breakfast service.

— Helen Roberts, School Outreach Educator, No Kid Hungry NC


Madeline Will

Madeline Will graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2014, where she majored in journalism and political science. She spent most of her time in the Daily Tar Heel newsroom, where she served as the State & National Editor in her senior year. She has also written for the Charlotte Observer, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Reuters, Education Week, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She is based in Washington D.C., and she enjoys reporting, writing, and telling interesting stories.