Healthier lunches prompt food fight

Some schools find nutrition rules costly

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In some school cafeterias, garbage cans seem to fill faster than children's bellies, thanks to nutrition standards that brought healthier -- if less appetizing and more expensive -- foods to lunchrooms.

Districts say they are struggling to meet requirements of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which went into effect in 2012, and congressional Republicans are trying to help. They've introduced a proposal to waive requirements for districts that can demonstrate that the standards are creating an economic hardship and whose school lunch programs have been operating at a loss for at least six months.

But their plan, introduced last week, puts them at odds with President Barack Obama's top adviser -- his wife, who has made children's nutrition her signature issue.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is also pushing back.

"A waiver would give schools the opportunity to go back to a day when meals were heavily laden with sugar and fats. We're dealing with an obesity issue and a hunger issue that affects millions of kids, that affects their educational achievement and that's certainly going to lead to higher health care costs later," said Mr. Vilsack, a Pittsburgh native. "I don't think we need waivers."

The National School Boards Association disagrees.

Federal reimbursement rates are too low to cover increased costs of healthier items -- foods that often end up in garbage cans, said Lucy Gettman, the association's director of federal programs. Further, she said, in some areas it can be difficult for food service directors to find suppliers carrying affordable products that meet the USDA guidelines.

"The vast majority of school districts are trying very, very, very hard to comply with the standards because they are absolutely committed to meeting the nutritional needs of their students. But at the same time they need to keep the boiler running, they have to meet the physical needs of the plant and they have human resources costs. School districts have to balance the ledger for the entire system," she said.

Her group wants more flexibility.

Mr. Vilsack said the USDA already is providing that. For example, it listened when districts said protein portions were too small for high school students and it provided flexibility when districts said whole-grain pastas were falling apart in lasagnas. And, he said, the department has distributed recipes that meet the standards and it can provide technical assistance to help districts procure ingredients.

"We are happy to work with school districts as they raise issues, but seeking a waiver for the entire set of requirements really is a step backward and jeopardizes the progress we've already seen," he said.

But the nonprofit National School Nutrition Association, which represents 55,000 cafeteria workers, says no amount of technical assistance will alleviate districts' financial concerns.

Mr. Vilsack is unrelenting.

"This is working. We know kids are eating more fruits and vegetables, and we're seeing a generational change in the way kids are eating," he said.

Districts, including Pittsburgh Public Schools, already find the standards challenging -- and they're about to get more restrictive.

More stringent requirements for less sodium and more whole grains are set to take effect next school year, although lawmakers in Washington are stepping in to try to delay implementation.

Curtistine Walker, food service director for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said the changes are a step too far when cafeteria managers already are trying to find ways to make fresh fruits and vegetables more appealing to students who are used to higher-calorie side dishes.

The changes in sodium levels and whole-grain content will affect taste and texture, said Ms. Walker, a past president of the National School Nutrition Association of Pennsylvania. "Food isn't going to be palatable," she said.

It also could become more expensive.

Ms. Walker already has had to tap into her kitchen-equipment budget to pay for the increased costs of fresh fruit and vegetables and to cover additional labor costs of preparing them. She found that children will eat fruit only if it is sliced and presented nicely, and they will eat raw vegetables only if they are served with ranch dressing. Both add expense.

The changes can be inconvenient but, mostly, they have been worthwhile, said Ms. Walker, who has worked in food service for the district since 1987, when cafeterias served a lot of starchy, canned and comfort foods.

"Now we're doing more with salads, fresh deli wraps and things like that. It's fresh. There's a huge difference in the menu selections and the way food is prepared," she said. "They've been good changes. It's just that they're making them too drastic now."

High-schoolers are finding the changes hardest to swallow because they've grown up on high-calorie, processed school lunches, Mr. Vilsack said.

Dauphin County 17-year-old Josh Herzing is among them.

From kindergarten through freshman year, he happily bought his lunch in the cafeteria and went back to class feeling satisfied and fueled for the afternoon. Back then, he could get a burger or a hot dog with fries, and if he were still hungry, he could add chips or cookies a la carte.

No longer.

"Sophomore year is the last time I remember having a good school lunch. They're smaller now and not as good tasting as they used to be," said Josh, who has started bringing lunch from home -- usually a ham sandwich, a bag of chips and a sports drink.

Otherwise, he would have two meal choices each day at Susquehanna Township High School -- neither appealing or filling, he said. Students who are still hungry often buy a second full meal, spending $6 a day and defeating the purpose of the USDA's portion control guidelines, he said.

Pittsburgh students often do the same, Ms. Walker said.

"They do have an issue with the portions. The average high school athlete would want two hamburgers or two sandwiches, but that knocks them out of the calorie range," she said.

High school lunches must be between 750 and 850 calories. The range for middle-schoolers is 600 to 700 calories. For elementary students, it is 550 to 650. There are also other restrictions including limits on fat content. Together, the requirements make it challenging to design menus.

About 1,500 of the 95,000 schools have dropped out of the National School Lunch Program rather than meet the standards even though it meant giving up federal subsidies. A USDA spokeswoman could not immediately put a value on the forgone subsidies.

Still, the vast majority of school districts are managing to comply and are doing it well, Mr. Vilsack said.

"There's a relative small percentage of schools experiencing difficulties, and they may be quite vocal about the problems, but I don't think we need waivers," he said. "This program works."

Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: 1-703-996-9292, or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.

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