Causes of School Lunch Controversy

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 In response to growing concern over child obesity in the U.S., the 2010 reauthorization the Child Nutrition Act included several new requirements for schools receiving federal funds for their school lunch programs.   The new section of the Child Nutrition Act is known as the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010.  The new guidelines are meant to provide a minimum standard of nutritious, healthful food that will provide enough calories without contributing to obesity.

  The changes from previous school lunch standards include requirements for school lunches such as:

  • Bread products that are made from at least fifty percent whole grains
  • Larger servings of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Fruits and vegetables must be served every day.  Green, leafy vegetable must be served once a week.
  • White and flavored milk must be nonfat or one percent fat.
  • Meals must meet both minimum and maximum calorie requirements for the age group to which they are being served, according to USDA standards.
  • Foods cannot contain any trans-fats that are not naturally occurring in the food.
  • School districts must create a local wellness policy

These new guidelines are more specific and extensive than any school lunch guidelines offered in the past.  Since the guidelines are such a large change from previous standards, the standards were implemented over a five-year period, with the last large change occurring in the 2014-2015 school year.

  Schools must follow the new standards if they want to receive federal dollars for the lunch programs.  While many school districts only receive one or two percent of their lunch budget from the USDA before sales, many districts receive substantially more dollars through the free and reduced lunch program.

  The free and reduced school meals program reimburses part or all of the cost of a school lunch for children from low-income families.  This reimbursement money may make a small percentage of an affluent school's lunch program and almost all of the funding for schools in high-poverty areas.

Some school districts and parents have rallied against these new guidelines.  While the majority of school districts are working hard to comply with the new standards, some school districts across the nation are refusing to adopt the new lunch standards, instead choosing to opt out of the USDA School  Lunch Program.  Some school parents and school districts believe that these new standards aren't right for their children and schools.  Here are some of the criticisms that are given by those who oppose the new school lunch standards:

The New Standards Are Overreaching  Some feel that the new specific standards are too strict and detailed, and therefore hard for schools to comply with.  The USDA claims that the standards were designed to be the minimum, and that many districts already had similar guidelines.

  This argument against the new lunch standards echoes the sentiment against Common Core State Standards.  In both cases very defined standards are being adopted nationwide.  Since the United States educational system primarily develops policies from the local level, some districts feel that the new standards rolling out nationwide are simply too cookie cutter and won't be in the best interest of local areas.  

Children Won't Eat These Lunches  Some parents and school district lunch administrators alike feel that the new limits on salt, sugars and fats combined with increases in whole grains, fruits and vegetables will necessarily lead to food that children simply won't eat.  Schools in different parts in the nation noticed a drop in sales in their lunch rooms with more food being thrown away.  Parents have complained to their local schools that their children come home hungry after refusing to eat their school lunches.  

It Is Too Expensive For Schools  Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain tortillas and buns and brown rice typically cost more to purchase compared to the foods previously purchased to make school lunches.  Added sugars and salts also increase the shelf life of many foods, reducing the costs associated with refrigeration and making more frequent purchases.  Some schools also bemoan the lost revenue that was created by selling high sugar or high fat snack and dessert items.    The profits made on the less healthy foods would be used to purchase healthier foods.  The combined effect of the lost revenue from selling treats along with declining sales of the regular lunches has created financial challenges for some school cafeterias.

There Aren't Enough Calories  The calorie maximums for school lunches were based on research data for what a large majority of children would need for lunch.  The maximum calorie limits increase with age, ranging from 650 kCal for elementary age students on up to 850 kCal per lunch for high school students.  Some people fear that highly active students or students that are very large for their age will not get enough calories to sustain themselves throughout the school day.  

When a public school or district decides to opt out of the USDA School Lunch program, they are no longer required to comply with the standards.  These schools also cannot receive reimbursement for free and reduced lunch programs that are offered to children from low-income families.  No school is required to provide free or reduced lunches to low-income children.  

However, while I was researching this article I was unable to find any information about a school that opted out of the USDA program that did not also provide free and reduced meals to low-income students. It is a sound educational policy to ensure that all students have access to lunch and breakfast so that they may be able to learn while at school.  By opting out and continuing to provide free and reduced lunches to some students, districts are having to find ways to make up that lost income from USDA reimbursement.  Often, paid lunch prices increase to cover the difference.  In high poverty areas, schools receive a high enough percentage of their lunch costs from USDA reimbursement that they may not even be able to consider leaving the programs.  

After taking a look at some of the criticisms that have led some school to leave the USDA School Lunch Program, it is worth looking at different ways that schools who remain with the program have found to make the program work.  If you are a parent who is not satisfied with the lunches being served at your children's school, further articles at this site will help you find solutions.

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