Lunches at school

March 15, 2015; Boston Globe

School lunch is big business, and the meals provided by school cafeterias are both critical for some students and challenging to fund for school districts that supply them. Debates have raged nationally for decades about which foods to serve, whether to supply hot meals as well as cold, and how to entice kids to make better food choices in the lunch line.

First Lady Michelle Obama has made the fight to provide healthy meals in school her cornerstone initiative. Not surprisingly, Congress is eyeing that as a place to cut funding, once again increasing the difficulties faced by public schools. This week, Boston Public Schools laid out a plan to “cut cafeteria costs by reducing the variety and number of offerings…raising concerns among some parents and food service employees, who worry that students will not find anything they like to eat,” according to the Boston Globe. “The changes, scheduled to begin next month, affect more than 40 schools that that have served a wide variety of menu items.”

“One of the biggest changes will occur at breakfast,” the article continued. “No longer will cafeterias offer both a hot and cold breakfast option most mornings. Instead, hot items will be limited to twice a week, and on some mornings, students will receive just a bowl of Cocoa Puffs—a new menu item billed as ‘vegetarian’—and two pieces of fruit.”

While sugared cereal isn’t usually labeled as vegetarian, food definitions in this debate have over the years often gotten blurred, ranging from condiments being claimed as nutritional to potato lobbyists fighting to keep their starch firmly on the menu. There’s the battle over pizza, currently one of the most popular school menu items. According to an article last fall in the New York Times, “Schools purchase more than $450 million worth every year.” Before stricter guidelines, it was acceptable to “market pizza slices as a product containing grains, protein and a full serving of vegetables. This was thanks to a longstanding loophole: Rather than count the two tablespoons of tomato paste on a serving of pizza as two tablespoons of tomato paste, they could count it as eight tablespoons of tomatoes, the theory being that at some point before being processed, the two tablespoons had existed in the form of several whole tomatoes.”

The Times claims that January 2011 saw the firing of the “first shot in the Cafeteria Wars”:

“That was when, under the terms of the new law, a team of dietitians, economists and nutritionists at the Department of Agriculture released the revised meal pattern for school breakfasts and lunches. The rules outlined just what schools—and, by extension, their suppliers—would have to do to continue receiving government subsidies. Both groups were struck by just how aggressive the new rules were. Within a few years, schools would need to switch all of their breads and pastas to whole-grain varieties. Within a decade, the average salt content of a high-school lunch would have to be cut by roughly half. When the school year began in fall 2012, lunches would have to offer twice as many fruits and vegetables, and students would be required to take at least half of them. At the same time, plates had to have fewer ‘starchy vegetables,’ obvious code words for French fries.”

A U.S. News & World Report story this week said, “Nutrition guidelines for schools, which have gradually gone into effect since Congress passed the Michelle Obama-backed Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, can be logistically and financially difficult for already strapped district budgets.”

In Boston’s case, the changes proposed are scheduled to begin next month and would affect more than 40 schools. “The switch has alarmed a number of parents and child nutrition experts,” reported the Globe. Stephanie Shapiro Berkson, who is a parent there and a professor of public health who specializes in childhood obesity, said, “I’m so disappointed to hear that decreasing the nutritional value of school lunch by limiting choices and variety to ultimately offering more chicken nuggets, hamburgers, pizza, and hot dogs is under consideration.”

Boston school officials disagreed the changes would be negative, saying the menu choices “reflect popular demand and streamlining the choices is part of a concerted effort to reduce the amount of food thrown out and to increase participation in the breakfast and lunch programs.” But at the same time, U.S. News says that, “Anecdotally, many education professionals say they still see a lot of waste.”

Students are also split on the issue. Some have held boycotts protesting the healthier food, while others like it. They’ve taken their opposing views to Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama.

“Boston is pursuing the cost-cutting measures as it contends with an operating deficit in its food service program. During the past eight years, the program has lost more than $20 million,” according to the Globe. “This year, the program was initially on track to lose another $4 million, but the School Department cut losses to $2.3 million by enacting a hiring freeze and other measures, and is hoping the deficit will shrink more by June.” Contributing factors are food costs, cost of shipping meals in to schools without kitchens, and “the School Department’s failure to use free commodities—including fresh fruit—from the federal government, but plans are for the last at least to change because of a new warehouse system.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, students “obtain food and beverages in schools from three venues: federally sponsored meals sold by schools; products sold in vending machines, school stores and a la carte lines that compete with school meals; and items brought to school in packed lunches and snacks or for events, such as fundraisers, class parties and sporting activities.” They suggest that the emphasis “should be on dietary pattern—encouraging a broad array of foods and looking at diet as a whole. This is a healthier strategy than forbidding ‘bad’ foods…In fact, restricting foods, like withholding sweets, can make them more attractive, while stringent removal of flavorings and fats can render even highly nutritious foods so unpalatable families won’t eat them.”

Unfortunately, as the Times reported in an earlier article, there are no easy answers and the battle lines continue to be redrawn. When the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act became law in 2010, it had “overwhelming support in Congress. But as the government began turning the broad guidelines into specific rules—specific rules with specific consequences for specific players—life became more difficult. What began as a war on obesity turned into war among onetime allies.”

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act will be up for reauthorization in September 2015. “House Republicans have tucked a provision into the agriculture spending bill currently winding its way through Congress that would allow any school cafeteria that lost money for six straight months to ask for a one-year reprieve from the new standards. The waiver would apply not only to the new set of rules but also to a forthcoming set of health standards that further ratchet up the requirements. That means that the provision wouldn’t just keep some lunches from getting healthier, but would likely allow some schools to offer less healthy lunches than they do now.”—Susan Raab