Most school districts across the region will begin following new federal nutrition guidelines for food served during the school day on July 1.
But a few communities are pushing back and say the new nutrition rules don’t work for them.
In recent years, many food professionals have welcomed the change to healthier options. In 2012, schools had to add larger servings of vegetables and a weekly selection of dark leafy greens or red and orange vegetables.
School Nutrition Association spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner said those changes have been positive, but the newest standards are “much more strict.”
One mandate for 2014-2015 requires students to select a fruit or vegetable with lunch.
“Forcing kids to take food that they don’t intend to eat has been a recipe for failure,” she said. “We’ve seen it increase the amount of plate waste — the food that’s getting thrown in the trash — and it’s making students frustrated and unhappy with their school meal programs.”
The association has noted a decline in the number of students participating in the national food lunch program.
Association members have written first lady Michelle Obama and the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack asking for “flexibility.” They want the federal government to give schools time to identify options that students will actually eat.
Guidelines restrict variety
In Chester County, the switch to 100-percent whole grains would be a hard sell for students at Unionville High School, said Marie Wickersham, supervisor of food services for the Unionville-Chadds Ford District.
“Sandwiches, for example, had to be made on whole-grain breads as opposed to a variety of breads, so it restricted the variety of choices we could offer to students,” Wickersham said.
The district has rejected the stricter guidelines for its high school and will forgo funding from the federal government.
The food-service team estimates that adopting the new guidelines would result in a 70-cent drop in student spending per day. That adds up over the school year, Wickersham said.
“The school lunch program is not a profit center. It’s not designed to be a money maker, however, it’s supposed to be fiscally responsible,” she said.
The district will continue to follow its local wellness and nutrition guidelines, which took a year of consensus building to craft. But officials have decided that the new federal rules don’t work for Unionville High School.
They also want to prepare older students for real-world temptations including fat, salt and sugar.
“First and foremost, it’s our responsibility to offer a variety of choices — in a certain set of guidelines — then ultimately give them the opportunity to make a choice,” Wickersham said.
About 5 percent of students in the Unionville-Chadds Ford district qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch.
In other districts where the proportion of poor children is higher, experts say, schools don’t have the financial flexibility to reject the new nutrition rules — and the federal funding that comes with them.
‘Kids’ favorites going away’
In Mercer County, New Jersey, the Lawrence Township schools will make the switch but administrators are bracing for some displeasure.
“The kids’ favorites are going away,” said Marybeth DiLorenzo, supervisor of dining services.
Her team calculated that about three-fourths of the current beverage options are not allowed under the new rules. “It’s almost impossible for us to offer these kids anything but water,” she said.
The Lawrence District stopped serving sodas years ago, but now some vitamin waters and larger-sized sports drinks will come off the menu too. In a weird twist, certain diet sodas do fit into the federal guidelines, DiLorenzo said, but she doesn’t want to make those a menu option for students.
Derry Township School District in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, has also decided to skip the new federal nutrition guidelines for its high school.
Gregory Hummel, director of food services, said the government took a “one size fits all approach” in crafting the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
“For some children, school lunch is, maybe, the best meal they get in a day,” Hummel said. “Our students have different needs.”
About 16 percent of all students in the Derry district qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, he said, but only about 7 percent of high school students participate.
Not participating in the latest federal guideline means Derry will bypass $55,000 in government funding, Hummel said. The district will “absorb” that change, he said.