The admirable intent of the new federal nutritional regulations for meals served at public schools is clear: If students in kindergarten through high school were given the option of eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and fewer foods like pizza, hamburger and fries, they would lose weight and be healthier.
However, the unintended consequences of nutritional regulations is that fewer students are eating breakfast and lunch at school and, as a result, school cafeterias are having a difficult time balancing their budgets.
In short, schools can offer the healthier food choices, but they can’t make children eat them. With so many children today eating their meals at fast-food restaurants and pizza parlors and rarely being served healthy, balanced meals at home, America is raising a generation of children who are obese, have dental problems because of eating too many sweets and don’t get enough exercise.
Area school districts report a decline in the number of children eating meals in the cafeteria.
In the Russell Independent School District, lunch participation dropped from 71 percent to 60 percent since the same time last year, according to figures supplied by food service director Dennis Chambers. Because of the drop, revenue is down $74,000 so far this year, he said. At the same time, expenses are up $27,000, because the fresh fruits, vegetables and other more nutritious foods demanded by the regulations are more expensive.
School lunch and breakfast programs are expected to be self-supporting, so when fewer meals are served, less money comes in to run the program. That is true not only for students who would pay the full price, but for those eligible under income guidelines for free or reduced-price meals, because the federal government reimburses schools for those meals.
The larger Greenup County School District is dealing with a similar drop, according to the district’s business manager and food service director, Scott Burchett. Through January, school lunch sales were down 22 percent, and the program had deposited $91,000 less in the bank than at the same time the previous year, Burchett said.
The regulations place calorie limits and add requirements for whole-grain bread products and fresh fruits and vegetables. That means less pizza, french fries and other traditional kid favorites.
Students may not think they’re getting large enough portion sizes in their entrees and may be going hungry because they don’t eat the fresh fruits and vegetables. There also have been complaints from athletes, who often go directly from school to practice, that they need more food and more calories.
Russell is trying to deal with student finickiness by offering choices in entrees, fruits and vegetables, Chambers said. Federal reimbursement regulations require that students take at least three of five offered items, and fruits and vegetables must be among them.
Officials in the Ashland Independent School District noticed a definite drop at the beginning of the school year, but participation picked up as the year went on, food service director Lora Pullin said. “A lot of it was education and looking for the right products,” she said.
There also was a process of acclimation — students weren’t accustomed to fresh foods and missed the fried foods. Pullin collected input from students, parents and staff to make menu changes.
Lunches will continue to cost more for those who pay the full price, because federal regulations are requiring districts to at least gradually bring the full-price lunch to the same level as the reimbursement rate, which is $2.51 currently. The regulation requires districts to hike the full-price meals at least 10 cents apiece per year until they reach that threshold.
Put into business terms, districts are looking for ways to get their customers back. If they don’t, Chambers said, there will be some hard decisions to make about staffing later on.
One hopes this is just a period of transition. Students who had pizza for lunch every day may be disappointed that is no longer an option, and they may prefer fried chicken to baked chicken. But if they bring their lunch from home instead of eating in the cafeteria, we suspect they soon will tire of cold sandwiches, moon pies and raw carrots and celery for lunch and opt to try the healthier foods now served at school. Time, education and some creative marketing are the best strategies for getting kids back to eating at school.