After only a year of introducing the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a federally subsidized program that reimburses schools for food served and offers reduced prices, some school districts have returned to their previous menus, as the healthier options didn’t resonate with students and began costing the schools money.
Losing Interest, Losing Money
Districts argue the reimbursements can’t compete with the thousands of dollars they’re losing as kids switch from purchasing school lunches to brown-bagging their lunch, or even going hungry. While federal officials don’t have hard numbers behind their observations, the $11 billion NSLP has caused pockets of school districts around the country to swap whole grains and vegetables for less healthy, more cost-effective options.
"The vast majority of schools across the country are meeting the updated meal standards successfully, which is so important to help all our nation's children lead healthier lives," Dr. Janey Thornton, deputy undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, told the Associated Press. "Many of these children have never seen or tasted some of the fruits and vegetables that are being served before, and it takes a while to adapt and learn.”
Such was the case in Catlin, Ill., where students who weren’t accustomed to eating healthily opted instead for not eating at all. The disinterest resulted in a 10 to 12 percent drop in lunch sales, or roughly $30,000 lost over the course of a year.
"Some of the stuff we had to offer, they wouldn't eat,” said Superintendent Gary Lewis, whose district will reintroduce fish sticks and soup to the menu and offer yogurt and a banana, not one or the other. "So you sit there and watch the kids, and you know they're hungry at the end of the day, and that led to some behavior and some lack of attentiveness."
A yearly $30,000 drop pales in comparison to the same decline in only three months, which took place in a school district near Albany, N.Y., that must now bring back hamburgers to compensate for the losses incurred by salad topped with flank steak and crumbled cheese, and pasta with chicken and mushrooms.
Coping With The Program
The School Nutrition Association reported a modest departure from the federal program. One percent of the 521 district directors surveyed said they plan to return to their former lunch offerings during the 2013-2014 school year. Roughly three percent were considering dropping the program. According to the Associated Press, a typical school lunch under the program consisted of a whole wheat cheese pizza, baked sweet potato fries, grape tomatoes with low-fat ranch dressing, apple sauce, and 1 percent milk.
For the students whose taste buds found the program unsatisfactory, sourcing food from the outside provided the only means for dietary freedom.
“A lot of kids were resorting to going over to the convenience store across the block from school and kids were buying junk food," said 17-year-old Wallace County High School football player, Callahan Grund. The Kansas athlete remarked on limiting calories being counter-productive in high-intensity training regimens after school. "It was kind of ironic that we're downsizing the amount of food to cut down on obesity,” he said, “but kids are going and getting junk food to fill that hunger."
Grund’s mother, Chrysanne Grund, worried for the students at her son’s school, as many of them professed similar hunger pangs to other students across the country. The student body even parodied the Fun. song “We Are Young” with their own track, “We Are Hungry.” And while the gesture was meant to be satirical, Grund’s mother found grave elements in its message.
"I was quite literally panicked about how we would get enough food in these kids during the day," she said, "so we resorted to packing lunches most days."