Last year, a new federal program to make school lunches healthier backfired in some districts when students just said no.
Revenues fell 9 percent in Oregon’s Salem-Keizer School District, for example, and Catlin, Ill., reported a loss of $30,000, according to a report in the Statesman-Journal newspaper. Across Oregon, lunch sales were down about 4 percent, but no public school districts dropped the program.
The federal guidelines require schools to serve more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and limit salt and calories. A few of the rules were relaxed mid-year in response to complaints, but the calorie curbs were retained.
Schools said students wouldn’t eat what was offered and ended up hungry, while fruits and vegetables landed in the trash.
Locally, Bend-La Pine Schools did see a slight drop in participation at the start of last year, but the usual drop-off just after New Year’s didn’t happen. Wellness Specialist Katrina Wiest said that by the end of the year, the district had served almost three times the fresh produce as it did the year before and was bringing in fresh seafood on a regular basis.
Bend-La Pine was way ahead of other districts, because it started investing back in 2005 in a farm-to-school program. In the years since, it has built relationships with local providers, developed its own recipes, equipped kitchens and trained staff to make from-scratch meals every day. Although the new regulations did require some adjustments in recipes, Wiest said, it wasn’t the wholesale change some other districts experienced.
Wiest said she’s heard comments around the state that not every district can do what Bend-La Pine does, and that’s surely true if viewed on a one-year basis since the new regulations took effect. Bend-La Pine can do it because it’s been building the program for years.
Given the critical importance of combatting obesity and encouraging students to eat healthy foods, districts would be wise to get with the program rather than resisting it or dropping out. They need to learn to prepare and present the healthier foods in ways that make them appealing to students. The change doesn’t happen in one year, and it doesn’t happen without commitment.