Op-Ed

How strict rules are making school lunches unsustainable

School may be out for summer, but lawmakers in Washington are already thinking about what will be on the lunch and breakfast trays of 1.5 million North Carolina students this fall. It’s all part of the reauthorization of the federal school meal programs, slated for congressional debate later this year.

Discussing how new nutrition standards for school meals are affecting school cafeterias here in North Carolina, I testified last week at the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce. I shared how North Carolina schools were early adopters of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act – all of our schools were in compliance with the new regulation by July 2013. But despite positive effects on student lunch trays, the cost of compliance is overwhelming many of North Carolina’s school meal programs.

Nearly 60 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, and many of them live in food-insecure households. While some may think of school meals as convenience, we need to provide the highest quality meal possible for those who depend on the programs as a primary source of nutrition. And keeping school programs financially viable is vital to that goal.

However, according to USDA data, more than 1 million fewer students have chosen school lunches under the new standards. In North Carolina, we’ve had a 12,000 increase in the student population, but statewide school meal participation is down 5 percent, leaving schools with less revenue to manage the higher cost of meeting the rules.

Schools have had some great success in exposing students to a greater variety of fruits and vegetables and gaining acceptance for whole-grain-rich options like breads and rolls. But students are voicing their opinions about some of the new requirements, such as being forced to take food they don’t intend to eat and the mandate that every single grain offered must be whole-grain-rich.

Schools have seen a backlash and significant waste – foods such as biscuits and crackers simply go into trash at lunchtime. Over 90 percent of our state’s school nutrition directors report the requirement for 100 percent of grains to be whole-grain-rich as the leading cause of student dissatisfaction. Some of these whole-grain options that are feeding our garbage cans cost twice or even three times as much.

Changes in school breakfast – particularly in biscuits, a morning staple that just doesn’t convert well to whole grain – have contributed to a decline in participation in 60 percent of North Carolina’s school districts. This affects our ability to ensure students start their school day with the fuel they need to succeed in class.

While food costs continue to increase, revenues continue a downward trend. In the last year alone, the state is down $20 million in a la carte sales following the implementation of new Smart Snacks in School rules – the other set of guidelines governing foods sold outside of the school meal program. Half of the school nutrition programs in North Carolina are operating at a loss, and this financial strain will affect general education funds.

School meal programs will not be sustainable without the revenue sources necessary to provide healthy, appealing options to students. There is opportunity in Child Nutrition Reauthorization to make nutrition guidelines more effective. We need to work with Congress to find viable solutions that keep kids eating healthy meals.

On behalf of its members on the frontlines in cafeterias, the School Nutrition Association is seeking more money for school meals and flexibility on the most stringent of the new rules that have resulted in negative consequences for kids. It’s not about a rollback. Now is the time to find a more effective path forward for Child Nutrition Reauthorization.

Lynn Harvey, Ed.D., is the chief of School Nutrition Services Safe and Healthy Schools Support Division of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

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