What is the Federal Government Serving for Lunch?

The 2014-2015 school year has officially begun! And now that students are no longer roasting hot dogs and chasing the ice cream truck for their lunch, they must return to their school cafeteria for the energy to endure their teacher’s afternoon lesson plan. But in some school districts, what is for lunch this year will look drastically different from what was for lunch last year.

central New York school district is the latest to join a growing number of public school districts across the county to drop out of the National School Lunch Program.  Districts in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Kentucky have all opted to forgo federal funding in order to avoid having to comply with stricter requirements effecting the lunches they serve to their students. These new restrictions were enacted in 2010 and backed by First Lady Michelle Obama with the stated goal being to fight childhood obesity.

What is the National School Lunch Program? And with the identified goal of helping to make children healthier as well as federal reimbursements to support it, why would some school districts choose to drop out of it?

Federal Government Lunch

The National School Lunch Program

The National School Lunch Program is a federally sponsored meal program that operates in both public and nonprofit schools around the country. The program was enacted as a part of the National School Lunch Act signed into law in 1946 by then President Harry Truman.

The program provides low-income children with free or reduced priced meals during the school year and throughout the summer. Participating schools are reimbursed with hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds for participating in the program. However, as of 2010, in order to participate and receive the funding, a school districts meals must comply with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

These guidelines required school meals given to students to include more fruits and a variety of vegetables, as well as service of only low or non-fat milk.  Further, the guidelines instruct schools to eliminate trans fats, limit sodium, and require that only whole-grain rich carbohydrates be served to students. In the most recently reported on development, even school bake sales have been curbed by the guidelines.

Why Would School Districts Be Dropping Out?

So why would a school district forgo hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding and voluntarily leave a program that asserts to only have a childs best health interest in mind?

The first reason, and most often stated, is that the programs requirement that a school district adhere to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is simply too restrictive.  For example, one school district near Chicago complains that under the guidelines, it is not able to serve its students hard-boiled eggs or hummus. Further, grilled cheese and tomato soup have been eliminated from school menus, along with a variety of snack foods available by vending machine.

Schools further object to the program because, in order to meet the guidelines, cafeteria staff must make complex meals in a simple school kitchen. Once made, students protest that the meals are not large enough to sustain them throughout the day, especially athletes who attend a sports program or practice after school. Schools also claim money and food are simply wasted because students often throw away the fruits and vegetables given to them without having taken even a bite.

Students chime in to say that the meals that comply with the guidelines are just not as tasty and thus, they are willing to find other alternatives to the school provided lunch – such as bringing their own food from home. One Kentucky school district claims it sold 166 fewer student lunches every day compared to the prior year  that is 30,000 fewer lunches over the course of the entire school year.

This refusal to buy the cafeteria food affects the school cafeterias bottom line. Most public school cafeterias are financially self-sustaining. When a district has to reach into its own pocket in order to make up for the lost profits, this means less money to be spent on books and computers.

Lastly, some school districts simply do not like the idea of the federal government asserting so much control over how their schools are run. School officials and administrators feel they know what works and does not work when it comes to their student and just how much they can stomach.

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