In Arizona, the wheat tortillas harden uneaten. In New York, cops patrol school entryways to guard kids from eating pizza and Big Gulps. And in Indiana, a "contraband economy" sprouted, where students sell sugar, salt, and pepper to add spice to the bland but nutritious cafeteria food.
The problem, critics say, is the Healthy Hunger Free-Kids Act, which Michelle Obama helped develop to make school food healthier. It passed in 2010 and is up for renewal at the end of September. A subcommittee met Wednesday to discuss the merits and problems of the program.
That was where John Payne, president of the Blackford County School Board of Trustees, a small district in Indiana, shared that the decrease in salted lunch foods led to a student-run spices black market. Some students don't eat at all, he complained, or they pick through the most desirable food, tossing the rest aside.
"The broccoli," Payne says, "it always ends up in the trash can."
Healthy Hunger-Free Kids requires that students be served proportions of fruit and vegetables—regardless of whether they want them. It phased breads slowly to whole-grain, regulated portion sizes, lowered sodium, and generally tried to make lunches healthier. If schools lived up the the standards, they received federal money. What happened instead, critics say, is that kids just dumped all that healthier food in the trash, while others ordered pizza to the school or sneaked off to convenience stores.
The intent of the first lady's project was to combat childhood obesity. Across the country, one-in-three kids are overweight or obese. It's not only bad for their own health, but as Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack testified, obesity costs the country $147 billion each year in health care. It even tangentially threatens national security: "Nearly one-quarter of young adults are too overweight to serve in the military," Vilsack said.
The School Nutrition Association represents 55,000 cafeteria workers and school nutritionists, and at first the group supported the act. Spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner says the organization later backed away when the regulations unfurled, which she called "complex and costly."
(A report by Politico, however, attributed much of the shift in support to the "Big Food" industry, which it said despises restrictions that cut profits. Also interesting, this story about how companies have adjusted slushies, funnel cakes, even Cheetos to fit the new standards.)
The SNA wants the Agriculture Department, which oversees school-lunch programs, to soften the regulations, which they say don't properly fund schools for the increased costs of serving healthier food and which forces vegetables on kids who want pizza.
Take, for example, the burden of the whole-wheat tortilla.
In Queen Creek, Arizona, a small suburb of Phoenix, Carol Weekly is a mother and dietitian who runs the district's food program. In order to meet the standards, Weekly says she purchases whole-wheat tortillas because flour tortillas won't make the nutritional cut. Students line up for lunch, place the whole-wheat tortilla on their trays, then discard it into the garbage.
They do this because, as Weekly asks rhetorically, who eats whole-wheat tortillas?
"I have never purchased whole-wheat tortillas even for my own house," Weekly says.
The regulations require too much, too fast, and don't take into consideration that kids can just opt out of eating, critics say. Part of the law requires that each student take a portion of vegetables and fruit. If a student doesn't, a cashier is obliged to place a serving on their plate. So, not only do students throw the tortillas in the trash, they also dump their applesauce, oranges, milk, and little plastic baggies of carrots.
"They don't want to eat carrots," Weekly says. "Should we offer it? Should we offer variety? Absolutely. But the fact that you're going to force them to take it, that's not reality."
This has lead to increased waste, critics say. As a result of the swap in healthier, less appealing food, 1.4 million children have opted out of school lunch, according to the SNA. The pressure to serve sometimes more costly, healthy food and the decline of lunch participation has led some schools to lose a lot of money. In a Rochester, New York, school district—the same one where officers patrol kids from fleeing the cafeteria for the convenience store—district supervisor of school nutrition Deborah Beauvais calculated that the act added $26,000 in wasted produce. In Weekly's district, she says it forced her to cut a nutritionist position.
"There's a lot of good intention," Weekly says, "but the mandates are just very expensive."
Then do kids win? If they refuse to eat carrots, should schools acquiesce and serve french fries?
Donna Martin says no, and she found her solution in ranch dressing.
Martin is director of the school-nutrition program for Burke County Public Schools in Georgia, just outside of Augusta, a rural area where every child qualifies for free and reduced lunches. Her district used to serve frozen vegetables that needed defrosting. Not the sort of food a kid eagerly devours.
Then, Martin implemented a farm to school program where local growers supply the kids fresh collards, corn, cabbage, carrots, berries, peaches, and yes, even broccoli, which she makes more seductive by adding a side of fat-free ranch dressing.
"They literally will eat anything with ranch dressing on it," Martin says.
After the switch to the fresh, more aesthetically pleasing and tasty vegetables, Martin says consumption doubled. Much of the work lies in educating kids about healthier food choices, Martin says. The hardest part is reteaching kids to eat healthy after years of junk food at home.
"We've got to keep our standards high," she says, "and work toward accomplishing those the best we can. "¦ We're parents, we've gotta change future generations here."
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.
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