GRAIN VALLEY, Mo. — Each school day, more than 30 million students take part in the school lunch program subsidized by the federal government. But each day, school nutrition professionals argue, too many of those students are left hungry, and foods they don’t like are left in trash cans.
“It’s created some of the healthiest trash cans in the nation,” jokes Brad Kramer, Food Services Director for Grain Valley, MO schools.
He’s only half-joking.
The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 grew out of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” Campaign to fight childhood obesity. The law, and regulations drawn up the USDA, set standards for school lunch programs that receive federal subsidies. Specifically, requiring whole grains, vegetables or fruits, and lower sodium content.
It sounds good, but students found, it didn’t TASTE good.
Says Kramer: “Eat healthier, yes. But with the decrease in sodium, the increase in whole grains, the students just aren’t finding it as palatable.”
The rules also placed limitations on al a carte snacks students could buy. As a result, students began skipping the lunch lines and bringing their own foods from home, or going hungry,
“They are bringing candy bars, cans of soda. They’re bringing items that aren’t good nutrition,” says Lori Danella with the Lee’s Summit School District Lunch Program.
In fact a Government Accounting Office Report released in February of 2014 found that 1.2 million students no longer took part in the school lunch program nationwide. Kansas and Missouri saw corresponding drops in lunches served, according to the USDA. That is costing school districts revenue from their programs used to train workers and purchase equipment.
And even those who take part often throw away food they don’t want, but are forced to take.
“Apples, oranges, we do clementines, we see peas, we see carrots, we see all types of fruits and vegetables go in the trash,” notes Danella.
One study by Cornell and Brigham Young Universities placed the amount at $685 million in wasted food each year.
The USDA counters that the waste figures are overstated, and that in reality, the biggest problem school districts faced was the pace of the changes. It granted waivers to some districts, but maintains the program is working nationwide to provide healthier meals to students.
The School Nutrition Association, representing more than 55-thousand school food service professionals, is weighing in as the law must be reauthorized this year. It’s asking for flexibility, a return to 50 percent whole grains, no additional sodium reductions, and making fruits and vegetables optional for students.
Lunch professionals in the metro say they just want the flexibility to do their jobs.
“We’re all in this business for the kids,” says Danella. “We’re not in it to make money. And it’s sad that we’re losing so many of the kids when this is our livelihood to keep our kids healthy.”