- Associated Press - Monday, March 3, 2014

MANITOWOC, Wis. (AP) - It’s been two years since legislation was implemented to encourage healthy eating during school lunches - and kids are eating healthier- but the new rules also are having some unintended consequences.

Students at Wilson Junior High School had a wide assortment of healthy options as they walked through the lunch line recently. Pizzas made from scratch, cheeseburgers with whole-wheat buns, deli sandwiches, beefy nachos, and unlimited fresh fruit and vegetables were all on the menu.

In the past, students were able to choose any three items out of five in order for their lunch to be counted under the National School Lunch Program, but new regulation, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, is aimed at helping kids make health decisions and requires that students take a fruit or vegetable on their lunch tray. The legislation also places stricter calorie and saturated fat requirements on foods offered to students and necessitates that any bread product offered must be whole grain.

Lynette Zalec, food service director with Chartwells School Dining Services, the company that provides the meal program for the Manitowoc Public School District, told HTR Media (https://htrne.ws/1fplZKG ) she has worked with local vendors to find healthy foods that kids enjoy to fit the requirements.

Students who made their way through the lunch line that day took fruit cocktail, broccoli, baby carrots or an apple to fit the requirement. However, while the legislation requires students take a fruit and vegetable, it cannot force them to eat it - and many students choose not to.

“We had very little waste before, now we have a lot of waste,” Zalec said.

Zalec said there is a learning curve with the new legislation as school districts figure out how to offer food students will eat while working within the government framework for acceptable offerings. Hilary Baker, the food service supervisor in the Mishicot School District, agreed.

“The food service staff is always on the lookout for new recipes or products that meet the new standards,” she said in an email. “The daily meal offerings plus the salad bars offer a wide variety of choices to help the student find something they like that will meet the fruit and vegetable requirements and eliminate the need for them to take something they do not like just to meet the meal requirements.”

A second round of guidelines are set to go into effect next school year and aim to give students healthier breakfast and snack options throughout the school day. The guidelines will set healthy standards for snacks sold in schools, such as mandating that food sold be whole grain or have a main ingredient of fruit, vegetable, dairy or a protein food.

Before the new standards, cookies and other small items were acceptable offerings for snacks, but now only healthy items, such as popcorn or peanuts, are allowed.

Districts are turning to their food vendors for new options, who are struggling to develop new recipes that fit the changes.

“The food manufacturers have found it challenging to keep up with the changes and this has made it challenging to find replacement products for products we once used that no longer meet the requirements,” Baker said. “It is often more challenging to find recipes and products for the elementary school children than the older students, as the elementary age children tend to be pickier eaters in general but we are trying.”

The new standards also apply to food-based fundraising efforts - which could mean the popular heart-shaped suckers sold as a fundraiser around Valentine’s Day will be a thing of the past.

Ken Mischler, the MPSD director of business, said the legislation could have unintended consequences if legislators don’t tweak requirements.

“We don’t know how to address this yet, and other schools don’t yet either,” Mischler said. “It may sound great, but what’s going to happen is it’s going to eliminate fundraising at schools is what it boils down to.”

The cost of school lunches are also increasing by an average of 10 cents a year, according to Mischler, and that continued increase eventually pushes more families to pack bag lunches for their kids - or, in some cases, kids choose not to eat at all.

“Kids are taking bagged lunches or not eating because it costs more,” Mischler said. “We’re raising prices beyond what we think is reasonable. That’s a concern of ours.”

Currently schools gets more financial reimbursement per meal from the government for free and reduced lunches than a student pays outright for a meal - and the government wants to close that gap.

“They want the paid lunch price to be the same as reimbursements for free meals that we get from the government,” Zalec said.

“Most districts use the free reimbursed amount to subsidize the paid lunches, meaning we make money on the free, but we lose money on the paid, but it washes out,” Mischler added. “They say you shouldn’t do that.”

The price increases, a result of the continued regulation, eventually began to erode the district’s bottom line as more students chose to pack a lunch - last year the district’s lunch program experienced its first financial loss in nine years. The problem, Mischer explained, is that continually raising the price of a lunch can be detrimental to families right on the edge of poverty.

“A person who is just a dollar or two above (the level to receive free or reduced lunch) pays full price. It doesn’t graduate up,” Mischler said. “The person that is near poverty levels is being discriminated against. Why not let (free and reduce) subsidize it? It allows them to eat at a reasonable cost.”

In Mishicot, Baker shared concerns that the legislation is driving up costs to schools and may influence lunch participation as prices increase.

“The USDA regulations requiring increases in meal prices could impact participation,” Baker said. “Another concern is the budget impact as the cost of providing fresh fruits and vegetables and new ‘in-compliance’ products is expensive.”

Things are improving as the district figures out how to work within the legislative framework - and Mischler expects the lunch program will be back in the black this year.

“I think we have an excellent food service program,” Mischler said. “We are staying within the regulations, but they are making it difficult to make it a financially sound program.”

Manitowoc is not alone in its struggles with the new regulation. According to Mischler, districts throughout the country have similar concerns over the financial feasibility and unintended consequences of the legislation - but time will tell if districts figure out how to work within the legislation, or if the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act will need tweaking.

“We believe time will help,” Mischler said. “They put legislation in without a lot of input from school districts and we think over a short period of time there will be some modifications.”

Both Mischler and Zalec said they believe the district has a fantastic lunch program and the two will continue to make tweaks based on feedback from students. In an effort to keep abreast with changes, Zalec is collaborating with other food service directors to develop more food options to fit the legislation.

“Instead of offering a 3-ounce bagel, we could offer a 2-ounce bagel with cream cheese. We’ll look at items a little differently,” Zalec said. “This is what we have to work with, now we have to make it positive.”


Information from: HTR Media, https://www.htrnews.com

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