The Douglas County Board of Education Tuesday voted unanimously against continued involvement in the National School Lunch Program for high schools — a program that was endorsed by First Lady Michelle Obama.
Recent changes in the lunch program that include tight federal restrictions on specific nutrition choices, are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a measure cheered by Obama in her push for legislated child health initiatives.
“This smacks of nanny state interference,” said board president Kevin Larsen in rejecting the federal directives. “Is the next step to start inspecting their bag lunches and start parenting instead of our parents parenting? Are they going to come and monitor your kitchen?”
Aside from the federal invasiveness the first lady’s initiative is built upon in principle, the program’s restrictions also present practical problems for kids’ bellies and schools’ budgets.
“Kids are throwing away twice as much food as last year,” ABC News reported in a video clip shown as part of an in-depth presentation by Douglas County’s Director of Nutrition Services Brent Craig.
“I don’t want to be the district that has the most nutritious waste baskets in the state,” said Larsen after the presentation. “There is a whole menu of things wrong with this program.”
Aside from the poor quality of taste because of tightly monitored sodium and calorie intake as two of the federal restrictions, the program presents other issues as well, including smaller portions and serious financial considerations for the district.
In order to comply with the federal standards, the school district’s cafeterias and other competitive food services on high school campuses would be forced to feed kids smaller servings of food to meet the calorie requirements, and students involved in school fundraisers would have to save receipts and nutritional information on all the foods they sell.
“You’d have a little teeny burrito you’d have to feed them,” said Craig, comparing the tightly restricted calorie count of the USDA program with his proposed alternative that eliminates half the sodium without losing the quality of flavor.
Craig said the school’s burrito is a healthy, tasty favorite of students, and contains fewer calories than a commercial burrito, but it still fails to meet impractically rigid federal standards.
Larsen argued the federal “one-size-fits-all” program does not provide ample room for differences in students, such as benefitting healthy, active student athletes who burn more calories than the federal burrito would permit them to ingest for lunch or a snack.
“We don’t typically like central planners here in Douglas County,” said board director Craig Richardson. “There is a role for districts, parents, students, and school-based leaders to strike those balances and meet those unique needs on an individual basis.”
Had the district implemented the changes, Douglas County also stood to lose approximately $3 million in revenue from the closing of healthy, competitive on-campus food services that failed to meet federal standards, including nine Subway franchises at the high schools.
“I do believe we need to fight obesity; I do believe we need to feed healthy meals. But I believe in the balanced approach,” said Craig, who maintains that food sold across campuses can be both healthy and palatable without losing revenue.
Craig said he relied on personal expertise and education, in-depth study, and a history of success to provide schools with healthy and more fiscally responsible meal options, and the board fully supported his plan.
“We’ve done a lot of work to give healthy choices to these kids, and you are getting less waste. I think that’s a strong argument for something that’s working,” said Larsen.
Although some risks are involved with rejecting the federal initiative, Craig’s program would continue to include students in free or reduced lunch programs, educate kids on healthy choices, and provide nutritious options for high school students.
“We’re prepared to go to the ends of the earth to make sure we don’t let anyone slip through the cracks,” said Craig. “I think I’ve proven myself. We will not throw out the baby with the bath water and just starting feeding them junk food.”
As of now, the vote will only affect high schools, but the board and nutrition services are both considering making the change for middle and elementary schools as well.
“We’re ahead of the game. We’ve always been ahead of the game,” said Craig.