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VOL. 41 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 24, 2017

Can free school lunches survive conservative shift?

Program has grown to serve those not threatened by hunger

By Kathy Carlson

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Every day in Nashville, Metro public schools serve 92,000 meals – from in-classroom breakfasts to pizzas at lunch – all meeting strict nutritional requirements, prepared with efficiency in mind and designed to appeal to that toughest of audiences, kids.

Federal funding and a high poverty rate in public schools make it possible for Metro to provide all these meals at no charge to any student. For many children in and around Nashville, the meals they eat at school may be the most nutritious they have all day.

One-fifth of Midstate children are at risk of hunger, Second Harvest Food Bank estimates. In addition to serving free or reduced-charge breakfast and lunch, many Midstate schools send at-risk kids home on Fridays with food to get them through the weekend. Metro schools even participate in serving dinners to those at risk.

Metro offers school meals free of charge to all students through the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act because 53.9 percent of all of the system’s students are economically disadvantaged and automatically qualify for free or reduced-cost-meals.

The Act allows schools and districts with more than 40 percent economically disadvantaged students to offer meals at no cost to students.

Some have criticized CEP for allowing all students in a qualifying district or school to get meals at no charge even if they are not economically disadvantaged and they could readily pay for them. The meals are offered to all students to reduce paperwork for families and schools and help reduce the stigma that children might feel about eating via a government-funded program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture states.

The National School Lunch Program grew out of the needs of the Great Depression, when millions were unemployed, farmers couldn’t sell their crops and school children couldn’t afford to buy lunch. The program still routes surplus agricultural products to schools for use in school meals and the U.S. Department of Agriculture administers the program.

Metro began participating in the CEP in August 2014 for the 2014-15 school year. The CEP had been phased in gradually starting in 2011-12 and went national in 2014-15.

All Metro students are eligible for free lunches through the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act since more than 40 percent of the district’s students – 53.9 percent – are economically disadvantaged.

-- Photograph Courtesy Of Metro Public Schools / Alan Poizner, Photographer

These programs are now facing uncertainty as conservative lawmakers look for ways to trim the federal budget.

Just last week, President Donald Trump released a budget outline that calls for major cuts in spending. The outline doesn’t explicitly address the National School Lunch Program, and power over the budget is in the hands of Congress. But there’s sentiment for change.

To muddy the waters, a speech by newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos given at the Conservative Political Action Conference put a spotlight on the issue when she said she is “perhaps the first person to tell Bernie Sanders to his face that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Critics jumped on the statement as a signal of her desire to cut or aggressively regulate school lunches. In actuality, the lunch and breakfast programs are under the authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. DeVos says she was talking about the public college tuition when mentioning Sanders.

Still, Republicans in Congress want fewer regulations and entitlements. They also want less of a federal role in what they see as local matters, such as school programs. New rules and potential changes in funding could throw a wrench into the behind-the-scenes planning and preparation that go into feeding school children.

Planning is key

Metro Nashville plans its meals a year in advance, says Spencer Taylor, its executive director of nutrition services. Metro spends more than $18 million on food annually and has a nutrition staff of nearly 800. It doesn’t add new menu items lightly.

Food waste is a big concern of school dieticians, who must walk a fine line between meeting nutrition standards and serving food that children enjoy.

-- Photograph Courtesy Of Metro Public Schools / Alan Poizner, Photographer

Nashville schools offer the same daily menus to all students. So, on Friday, March 31, pre-K students will be able to choose from hamburgers and cheeseburgers on buns and carrot fries. The rest of the students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, will choose from those burgers plus turkey burgers and veggie burgers, blackened or lemon-garlic tilapia, whole-grain rolls, baked onion rings and glazed carrots.

Students pre-K and older can choose salad, fresh fruits and milk, including chocolate and strawberry, each day.

There is extensive testing before a new menu item makes it into the rotation. Recent tests have included beet salad, edamame salad and ratatouille, he says. Edamame dishes are now on the menu.

Other school systems mix up the foods that they serve to students in different grades so they’re not all eating the same dishes on the same day. In Dickson County, its nutrition director, Jason Collins, says, “Each of our schools develops its own menus. It’s hard to manage but each nutritional staff can tailor foods to the particular tastes of its students.”

Clarksville-Montgomery County schools use a centralized menu that tries to keep the core of the menu the same throughout the schools but allows some flexibility. Elementary schools have separate menus from middle and high schools. The high schools have more choices, says Shane Tarkington, the county’s nutrition director.

Every public school system participating in the National School Lunch Program must follow its nutritional regulations.

Standards for school lunches changed radically in 2010 with passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, Metro’s Taylor says. Before that, schools generally weren’t required to analyze the nutritional value of menu items and there were no limits on fat or sugar, he says.

New standards reduced fat and sugar, and placed restriction on sodium based on science and research on childhood obesity.

“We have worked very hard to ensure we are meeting the standards while making the food taste good,” says Clarksville-Montgomery County’s Tarkington. “Spices have been used to enhance the flavor in place of fat, salt and sugar.”

Students also are free to bring their own lunches or not eat at all, Older students can eat off campus if the school allows it.

Reviews from students

One Metro middle school student says he used to bring his lunch but now always gets the school lunch.

“Honestly, I usually (eat the school lunch) when they have grilled cheese and chicken sandwiches,” he says. Otherwise, he may only drink milk. He eats a good breakfast at home before school so he’s not starving at lunch.

Metro’s chicken sandwiches and burgers received good reviews from a second middle schooler.

Another Metro student in high-school is generally happy with the food served at his school. He also eats lunches only.

“There are quite a few a la carte (items),” he said. “… We definitely have a lot more choice in what we do. That helps. Whatever they seem to lack you can usually pick up” from the a la carte menu.

“A lot of students pack lunches,” he said. “We have a lunch period of about 30-40 minutes. Most students will get lunch, eat quickly and then socialize with friends.”

And he doesn’t see a lot of food going to waste at his school. “If there’s an apple that someone doesn’t want, they can hand it off to a friend.”

“Overall I’d say the students are OK with the portions, but they wouldn’t complain if they bumped up the portions,” he adds. Metro wouldn’t need to double-size things, just add a little more for older students.

Encouraging participation

Participation has varied throughout the Midstate, with many officials saying demand has stayed the same.

Some schools such as Dickson County report greater participation in recent years. At least one system, Maury County, says that an improving economy has meant that more students bring their own lunches and don’t rely on school meals.

Participation in the Metro Nashville school meal programs is voluntary and greatest in the earlier grades.

“You find the greatest amount of participation in pre-K through 4th grade,” says Taylor. Participation drops off in middle school and continues to decline in high school. Depending on the high school, students may be allowed to go off-campus for meals, and some students socialize but don’t eat during lunch times.

“We are very open to the concerns of our school food community and we try very hard to address those concerns that affect participation,” he says. “This is accomplished by closely monitoring our services at schools, evaluating procurement, product testing, and having conversations with our customers.”

Dickson county officials say that the individualized school menus and extra efforts to make sure parents know they can apply for help in paying for school lunches have helped increase participation. Online applications for free and reduced-price school lunches has helped boost participation in Clarksville. More choices for older students helps to keep them using the school lunch system, school nutrition professionals say.

Holding down waste

Reducing waste is also a big concern. Some studies indicated that more food has been wasted since the nutritional standards were implemented because students didn’t like the way the food tasted or were leery of foods they didn’t eat at home.

School nutrition professionals acknowledge that food ends up in the trash because children won’t eat it.

One of the first things that Dickson County nutrition director Collins did when he came on the job was to start looking in trash cans, schools director Danny Weeks recalls.

“Whole fruit was being discarded,” he says. We invested in equipment to cut fruit. Students will choose cut fruit over whole fruit by a 10 to 1 margin.”

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