Your Local School District — America’s Real ‘Food Desert’

First lady Michelle Obama put out a call against a Republican proposal that allows a delay in enforcing her new school lunch standards.

“The last thing we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health,” she complained. “Now is not the time to roll back everything we have worked for.’’

The House Appropriations Committee announced last week it plans to let cash-strapped schools opt out of the nutrition regulations via waiver. The change would come through the 2015 agriculture spending bill.

Brian Rell, spokesman for Congressman Robert B. Aderholt, who sponsored House legislation that would grant qualifying school districts an opportunity to postpone enforcement of the new rules fired back

“These new federal regulations should not drive local school nutrition programs under water,’’ said Rell, “This temporary one-year waiver simply provides them a lifeline,” he said, noting that only districts that lost money in part of the past year would qualify for the waiver.

Leaders of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which had supported the new school menu standards when they were approved in 2010 as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, also responded.

“SNA does not see the waiver as a rollback but as a way to hit the pause button,” said Leah Schmidt, the president of the group,

A pause is necessary, Schmidt added, because many schools are overwhelmed by the new requirements and are seeing dramatically increased waste and cost, while sales decline.

“Can we shift the conversation to what we need to do to help school districts that are suffering?” Schmidt asked.

The first lady says she has heard a different story from several past presidents of the SNA despite an SNA survey finding about four percent of its members will either leave the program this year, or are considering doing so.

“Students want it, families want it — and they are participating,” said David Binkle, deputy director of Food Services for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “It is no coincidence that our test scores are up, attendance is up and graduation rates are up,”

Meanwhile, the Laguna Beach Unified School District, in Southern California, is the latest district to rebel against the federal healthy lunch program.

Debra Appel, food services supervisor at the school, said, “It’s not the chicken nuggets, it’s not the popcorn chicken. It’s not the corn dogs and stuff that the kids really liked.”

The USDA, which administers the program, says about 100,000 schools have signed up for the program — fewer than expected.

“USDA continues to provide additional flexibility and technical assistance to schools as they all now work to offer healthier meals,” said Dr. Janey Thornton, deputy under-secretary for Food Nutrition and Consumer Services at the USDA, released in a statement.

Under the program, lunches must include fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. And there’s a calorie cap: 850 for high school kids, 700 for middle school, and 650 for elementary school. In Kentucky, students thought the healthy food “tastes like vomit.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has already rolled back one of the standards about pasta — that only whole-grain can be used — after finding that the food fell apart when cooked in large volumes. A 2013 report released by the Government Accountability Office also found a number of problems with the National School Lunch Program.

The report, presented to a subcommittee of the House Education and Workforce Committee, detailed visits to eight school districts to see the impact of the regulations.

“Although the eight districts GAO visited expressed support for the improvements to the nutritional quality of school lunch, they reported additional challenges meeting the new requirements, such as student acceptance, food waste, costs, and participation,” the report states.

It notes cheeseburgers being removed from one district’s elementary and middle school lunch menus because adding cheese to the burger “would have made it difficult to stay within the weekly meat maximums.” Another district switched from shredded cheese to cheese sauce because the liquid cheese “does not count as a meat alternate, while another school district switched from whole grain chips to potato chips because “the potato chip did not count as a grain.”

The report also found some schools had trouble maintaining healthy options for students.

“…the [School Food Authorities] reported adding pudding to certain high school menus to bring the menus into compliance with the calorie minimum…added gelatin, ice cream, or condiments such as butter, jelly, ranch dressing or cheese sauce to become compliant…increased the amount of sugar, sodium, or fat in the meal, potentially undercutting the federal law’s goal of improving the nutritional quality of lunches.”

The GAO also noted the difficulty in complying with the calorie maximums for students based on grade, as students from varying grades use the same cafeteria lines.

“…Athletic coaches expressed concerns that student athletes were hungrier after school than they were in previous years and staff reported that more students were distracted during the final period of the school day than in previous years.”

Another problem is cost as student chose to boycott the lunchroom.

The Fairfield, Connecticut school district raised its lunch prices by 10-cents to deal with the changes.  Similarly, Portsmouth, New Hampshire schools increased their prices by 25 cents per meal, citing “dwindling participation” in the lunch program.

A New York district lost $100,000 last school year in its lunch program while an Indiana district lost $300,000.

Add to this the fact that Orthodox Jewish schools are finding it difficult to abide by the guidelines. That’s because the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act requires the serving of certain foods that some might consider non-kosher.

The Jewish newspaper The Forward which examined the issue reports:

“Their reason has nothing to do with the taste of spinach, kale, or cabbage. It is because these and other leafy greens might be infested with tiny insects that would render them non-kosher.”

It’s not only vegetables  posing a problem for Orthodox schools, but the grain-based food limitation also contradicts Jewish law as well.

“…students require a certain amount of bread, usually one slice. But that would take up all the grain allocation for a meal and would not allow other grain-based foods on the lunch plate.”

But Obama remains a big proponent.

“Because of this act…32 million children get more of the nutrition they need to learn and grow and be successful and I do hope it’s delicious — we’re working on that, yes, indeed,” Obama stated.

With public school students using #ThanksMichelle to tweet photos of their skimpy, stomach-turning school lunches, the Obama’s girls, who attend Sidwell Friends School, eat lunches from menus designed by chefs. Including chicken coconut soup, local butternut squash soup, crusted tilapia. They also eat foods their mother considers to be junk like meatball subs, BBQ wings and ice cream.

Oddly enough, Sidwell Friends School has also been rated as having one of the top rated School Lunch programs in America.

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