If the federal government gets its way, critics are warning, school lunches will be more expensive and less appetizing and ultimately will leave school districts footing the bill for costly food going down the garbage disposal.
Under regulations proposed this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would have the final say on what students eat. Educators fear the guidelines, trumpeted by first lady Michelle Obama and others as a key to curbing childhood obesity, will take a huge bite out of school budgets while resulting in "healthier" meals that make youngsters turn up their noses.
"Under the proposed rule, school meals would become so restrictive they would be unpalatable to many students," said Karen Castaneda, director of food service at Pennridge School District in Perkasie, Pa.
For example, Ms. Castaneda said, the proposed sodium restrictions for student lunches resemble diets previously reserved for those battling serious illnesses such as kidney disease. The rules also would require students to eat more fruits and vegetables, forcing schools to serve extra apples and broccoli even if experience shows that children can't - or won't - eat them.
Breakfast programs are especially worrisome.
"The proposal will double the fruit serving ... [and] would add a required meat serving daily," said Sally Spero, food planning supervisor for the San Diego Unified School District. "Nothing is achieved when money is spent on food that children won't even be able to consume and nothing is more disheartening ... than to see perfectly good and perfectly untouched food thrown into the trash."
The regulations would also require schools to spend more money for fresh fruits and vegetables. Many districts now serve cheaper canned fruits or frozen vegetables.
Administration officials say they have no interest in becoming what one called "the cupcake police," and noted that educators, parents and the general public had been given time to comment and suggest changes. The public comment period ended April 13, and all suggestions will be analyzed and possibly incorporated into the final version, the Agriculture Department said in a statement Friday to The Washington Times.
The department also noted that the proposed rules are meant solely to "align school meals with the dietary guidelines as recommended by National Academies' Institute of Medicine."
What the government sees as a drive for more nutritious meals, some in the states see as an unfunded mandate from Washington.
Ms. Castaneda said her district's food budget, including breakfast and lunch programs, would increase by $111,234 under the guidelines taking shape. Federal school lunch program reimbursements would cover $32,460, leaving the Pennridge district little choice but to raise lunch prices to come up with the remaining $78,774.
"Our concern is that the proposed regulation may result in having the opposite effect to that which it desires, driving up costs and driving children ... out of the program," said Barry Sackin, owner of B. Sackin and Associates, a consulting firm specializing in school nutrition.
Many of those issues received an airing at a House subcommittee hearing last week at which Mr. Sackin, Ms. Castaneda and Ms. Spero all testified. Some House Republicans have raised questions over whether the Obama administration has overstepped its authority in trying to dictate nutritional and other values for local school lunch programs.
After President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act last year, Agriculture Department officials began crafting the new dietary rules, which remain under internal review.
While supporting healthy food for students, Mr. Sackin said, the proposed rule strives for perfection by sacrificing the "very good."
"Unfortunately, there is a perception that if we fix school meals we can fix childhood obesity. But the reality is that school meals are already the healthiest meals that many children eat," he told lawmakers. "The fact that too many children start school already overweight certainly suggests that schools aren't the cause."
The American Association of School Administrators has called the plan a "direct unfunded mandate" imposed on school districts. The National School Boards Association on Friday released a statement saying it is "gravely concerned about the financial impact the law could have on school districts at a time when many are in dire economic straits."
"Two years after implementation, the cost of a school breakfast may increase by more than 25 cents. The cost of a school lunch will have increased by more than 7 cents," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, the California Republican who chairs the House subcommittee focusing on primary and secondary education issues. "The total compliance costs will reach $6.8 billion by 2016, costs that will fall heavily on states and schools."
Mr. Hunter obtained his figures from the Agriculture Department's analysis of the proposed rules.
"Let me be clear: We all want to combat child hunger and improve the health and well-being of low-income families," Mr. Hunter said. "However, we should reject the false choice between our support of child nutrition and the critical need to rein in the size and cost of the federal government."
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