School Lunch Program Struggling With Regulations, Costs

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

Image (c) www.glutenfreeville.com
Image (c) www.glutenfreeville.com

On April 23, Bedford School’s Food Service Director Ken Whittier presented the School Committee with a grim view of the difficulties he has encountered since state and federal regulations have altered nutritional standards, adding both mandates and restrictions about what can and cannot be served in school cafeterias. The difference between last school year’s food sales and this year’s, to date, amounts to over $50,000, Whittier reported—with more than two months remaining before the end of school. The downturn in the economy affected sales, but Whittier explained that the problem accelerated when the new nutrition standards were introduced.

“Trying to create a budget for the school lunch program for this year was [very difficult], Whittier began. “There were a lot of impacts [from the new regulations] that were unforeseen because we had never gone through this kind of process before. The reauthorization of the National School Lunch Program in 2010 created a lot of new direction[s] for the school lunch program across the country. Massachusetts’ regulations for ‘competitive foods’ also came out at the exact same time, so I’m trying to make sense of that.”

[The USDA defines “competitive food” as “a food or beverage sold at school other than one served as part of the United States Department of Agriculture school meal program,” regardless of nutritional value.” The term includes items sold in vending machines, a la carte or through other school fundraising efforts.]

“How do we make up ground? How do we determine the direction of the program?” Whittier asked. “We’ve reached this critical point where these school lunch regulations have really taken hold and are the drivers of the future. You have to adapt to the drivers in order to create the program that we’re all obligated to run.”

Whittier spoke to some of the changes the regulations have produced:

The old standards combined fruit and vegetables into one category, so you could opt to provide one or the other; now both must be provided daily with a certain number of ounces mandatory per week.

Half of the weekly grains servings must now be whole grain. Eight servings was the old standard; eight to twelve servings is the new standard. Whole grain products, in general, cost more.

Vegetables that were once categorized as green vegetables,–like beans and peas—are now listed in the “other” category. Leafy and cruciferous vegetables, or what Whittier said was termed by the regulations as “nutrient-dense” foods, now dominate the green vegetable category.

“In order to put those items on the menu, you have to go out and buy them or you try to get something from the government that you can put in the green vegetable category. The government doesn’t always give you what you need,” Whittier said, referring to the government commodities program that is the source of food for much of the nation’s school lunch program.

To get to a break-even point—or to at least “mitigate the loss”—Whittier has considered several options: raising school lunch prices, particularly at the elementary schools where costs are currently lower than at the middle and high schools; cutting employee hours by 15 minutes a day—employees are now on the job about 4 hours per day; reducing food costs by buying raw foods instead of prepared foods and processing them in-house; and improving efficiencies.

Whittier also canvassed area schools to find out how their lunch costs compare with costs in the Bedford’s schools.  He found that generally Bedford was in the low-middle of the pack. Additionally, he noted that the other schools he spoke with have experienced the same or greater levels of revenue loss since the state and federal regulations were introduced.

Since 2006, when Whittier started working for the Bedford School program, lunch prices have been raised three times. He noted that after every increase in price, there was a subsequent decrease in numbers of meals sold as families react—and then gradually adjust—to the higher price.

“I have a hard time recommending [a raise in school lunch prices] when I see the decrease in the amount of meals [sold]; and I think that even without the [regulation-driven drop-off in sales] you see a negative effect,” Whittier speculated. “If there’s growth for prices—[because the lunch price at the elementary schools is currently lower than in the other schools]—that’s kind of where there would be an opportunity.”

Ann Guay of the School Committee recommended surveying parents whose elementary school children buy lunch regularly to see how they would react to a price increase. Whittier was open to that suggestion, saying he had previously met with the board of the Bedford Elementary Schools Together (BEST) elementary school PTO to address other concerns and found the meeting to be mutually beneficial.

School Committee member Brad Hafer said he wanted to take time to “do a deeper dive” into the information Whittier had provided. “I sympathize with what you’re trying to do, facing everything you’re facing: the regulations, the kind of food, all the other stuff you’ve mentioned today. I have too many questions to go through with you now. My recommendation would be to have some questions offline and [then] take another look at this.”

Committee Chair Ed Pierce asked if the regulations and legislation were sustainable, given the difficulties Whittier had reported.

Superintendent of Schools Jon Sills responded that he’s had discussions with Bedford’s State Representatives to explore the issue at the legislative level because “we would appreciate some flexibility.” Sills added that he sees the possibility to work with other superintendents to gather data and decide how to influence the process. “I think it makes sense taking time to dig more into this,” Sills said.

“There’s an education process that I think the regulations have missed,” Whittier concluded. “I think they’ve missed the opportunity to go to the American people and say, ’These are recommendations that we not only strongly recommend, but that the science has proven will keep you healthy.’

“They could have used that as a marketing campaign which would then support the school lunches, and bring it into the schools as curriculum-based. You can’t teach it in the cafeteria. No one’s listening [there].”


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