After just one year, some schools are dropping out of the healthier new federal lunch program, complaining that so many students turned up their noses at meals packed with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables that the cafeterias were losing money.
Federal officials say they don't have exact numbers, but isolated school districts are cutting ties with the $11 billion National School Lunch Program, which reimburses schools for meals served and gives them access to lower-priced food. About 31 million students participated in the program that took effect last fall under the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The new guidelines set limits on calories and salt and required more whole grains and vegetables.
Districts that rejected the program say increased reimbursement rates could not offset losses from, in some cases, more than 10 percent of students who began avoiding the lunch line and bringing food from home or, in some cases, going hungry.
In upstate New York, the Schenectady-area Burnt Hills Ballston Lake system was one of a few districts to quit the program. Its five lunchrooms ended the year $100,000 in the red. Near Albany, Voorheesville Superintendent Teresa Thayer Snyder said students repeatedly complained about the small portions, and apples and pears went to the trash untouched.
Janey Thornton, deputy undersecretary for the Department of Agriculture’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services division, which oversees the program, said she is aware of districts quitting but remains optimistic: “Many of these children have never seen or tasted some of the fruits and vegetables that are being served before, and it takes a while to adapt and learn.” The School Nutrition Association found that 1 percent of 521 district nutrition directors surveyed over the summer planned to drop out of the program in the 2013-14 school year and about 3 percent were considering the move.
Demographics do matter, some. Only about 9 percent of Burnt Hills students get free or reduced lunches. The National School Lunch Program reimburses schools $2.50 to $3 for free and reduced-priced meals and about 30 cents for full-price meals. That takes the option of quitting off the table for schools with large numbers of poor youngsters.
It’s true the poor have less access to healthy food, but some don’t have enough food, period. The calorie limits appear to be too severe to meet the needs of some children. In December, the Agriculture Department, responding to complaints that kids weren’t getting enough to eat, relaxed the 2-ounce-per-day limit on grains and meats, but kept calorie limits.
At Wallace County High in Sharon Springs, Kan., football player Callahan Grund said the revision helped, but he and his friends still have hours of practice after school. The 750-850 calorie limit for high school students struggles to crack a third of the recommended 2,400 minimum daily calorie intake for moderately active teen boys. Grund’s district decided to keep the program.
To protest the lunches, Grund and his schoolmates starred last year in a music video parody of the pop hit “We Are Young.” Instead, they sang, “We Are Hungry.”