EDITOR’S NOTE: Press Herald staff writer Mary Pols recently ate lunch at school with her son.
First lady Michelle Obama recently got indignant about school lunches and spoke sternly against a Republican-led plan to roll back the nutrition standards she had advocated for in the school nutrition program, aka the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
Since I frequently get indignant about school lunches and speak sternly to a 10-year-old about his tendency not to eat them, or indeed, any lunch, I paid careful attention.
Speaking to a group of school officials, Mrs. Obama called the intention to soften the stance on health requirements “unacceptable.” “It’s unacceptable to me not just as first lady but as a mother,” she said.
As she noted, America just saw a downward turn on the rates of childhood obesity, one of the key health issues the school nutrition standards were supposed to help with. Why backpedal?
She also wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, which was considered, by media types, to be her “getting political.” At least that was the description I saw in multiple outlets, which strikes me as ridiculous since the whole business of being first lady is always political, even when we’re talking about gardening. That’s my feeling as a member of the media.
My feeling as a mother is that if a woman with a pair of arms, not to mention blooming young daughters, wants to help me out with the dilemma of making sure my child eats well when he’s away from me, more power to her.
Here’s the deal: Robert Alderholt, a Republican congressman from Alabama and a member of the House Committee on Appropriations, tacked on a rider to the agricultural spending bill for 2015 that would allow school districts that are losing money under the current, healthier standards to get a pass on meeting some federal dietary standards for school lunch.
Alderholt, a father of two young children and the chair of the Subcommittee on Agriculture, said school districts in Alabama were “desperate for relief and flexibility” from the requirements. He also claims kids in his district are rejecting the healthy choices. It would be a temporary waiver. (But we all know how temporary waivers work in government.)
Particularly at issue is a requirement that school lunches include entirely whole grains by the next school year; that deadline seemed to be terrifying the School Nutrition Association (SNA), a group that is funded in part by the manufacturers of (what else?) school lunches. The School Nutrition Association says 78.3 percent of school nutrition programs are spending more as a result of implementing the federal nutrition standards.
“Whole-grain items, fresh fruits and vegetables and low-fat snacks in particular have resulted in increased costs,” the association says on its website.
Sing me a new sad song, SNA. I go grocery shopping too, so I’m well aware how much it costs to feed small children good food. Specifically, I am highly aware of the increased price in say, milk (up 14 percent, according to SNA’s website), but I don’t actually see an alternative to giving my child milk. I suppose soda would be cheaper, but that’s not happening at my house.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which awarded $11 million in grants in December 2013 to help schools purchase equipment to make healthier food preparation easier and more efficient, says the vast majority of school districts, over 90 percent, are able to meet the standards without taking a hit financially.
In Brunswick, where I live, the school department’s Food Services Director Scott Smith told me that meeting the standards has not cost the district more money.
In the same fact sheet, released right before the vote, the Department of Agriculture noted that, contrary to what Alderholt was saying, school lunch revenue was up $200 million in the first year of implementing the new standards. Also touted, a Harvard study that found kids were now eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act requires that they take some fruit and vegetable, even if they don’t want it.
This whole debate inspired me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for awhile: go to lunch at the cafeteria with my child. I did so the day after the House Appropriations vote. I pack him lunch roughly two days a week, and the other three, I rejoice in the fact that he’s getting hot lunch so that I have one less thing to do. But I have worried that the school standards aren’t as good as mine.
Actually, they might be tougher; I usually give dessert.
The closest thing to that at my son’s school was the fruit bar, which was filled with bite-sized wedges of melons and oranges. No H-bars for them (Hood ice cream bars for anyone who didn’t grow up in Maine). I nudged my son into taking fruit; he was resistant, even though he loves honeydew and cantaloupe, probably because he was annoyed that the usual Friday entree, some form of pizza-like food, was a pizza quesadilla.
His friend Jacob had piled his tray high with fruit and ate it all. So had the girls we sat with. They all ate more than my child, who endured two cooked carrots (which would have benefited, flavorwise, from some butter if the guidelines on fat weren’t so strict) and pushed the rest into the trash, along with most of the quesadilla.
“We do have waste,” Smith said. “But I don’t think it is a direct result of whole wheat or added fruits and vegetables. I think it is just the nature of the beast.
“I know they don’t always eat it all,” he added. “If they don’t eat it, maybe they give it to a friend. It’s not a perfect system.”
And it never was. Not in the 1970s, when I was rejecting cooked spinach in Brunswick schools and not in the early 2000s, when George W. Bush was in office. It’s better though.
Smith said the Brunswick students are getting used to whole-wheat pasta and buns and bread. And manufacturers have made the whole-grain offerings a little softer and not so dark; they’re less daunting. It also helps that more parents are serving whole-wheat pastas and the like at home.
“It becomes a normal thing,” Smith said.
It’s also worth noting that when I pack a cold lunch, there’s waste too, often enough so that the dog approaches eagerly when I clean out the lunchbox at the end of the day. He likes a high-quality chicken nugget too, and is a more reliable consumer of such.
Among those on the House Appropriations Committee voting against Alderholt’s rider was Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, who said in a statement that the rider “would be a step backwards for students and a win for big food companies that want to sell more prepackaged, highly processed foods to school lunch programs.”
Those funding the School Nutrition Association include Domino’s Pizza, ConAgra, Dannon, Coca-Cola and Schwan Food Co. Pingree is married to Donald Sussman, who is the majority share owner of Maine Today Media, which owns the Maine Sunday Telegram. (She’s also a farmer and mother with grown children, two of whom are professionally involved in the movement toward healthy eating, which is what makes me listen to her on the issue of school lunch.)
The bill, along with the provision, passed through the House Appropriations Committee by a vote of 31 to 18 on May 29. It will return to the Senate for more tinkering. Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, has announced that she’ll introduce an amendment, not school lunch related, calling for the Department of Agriculture to allow the purchase of white potatoes (considered too starchy by purists to be healthy) through one of the government’s supplemental nutrition programs. Obviously she’s looking out for our Maine potato farmers.
I hope she’s also looking out for our school kids when that vote comes up. They need these good meals. At my son’s elementary school, 37 percent of the school population is receiving free or reduced-price lunch, and for many of them, that will be their most well-rounded and reliable meal of the day. “School is the best place some kids will be all day,” said Greg Bartlett, the Brunswick Schools’ assistant superintendent.
I’m grateful my son has a chance of eating a healthy school lunch, should he choose to do so. Bartlett told me there are 20 homeless children attending Brunswick schools this year. At the start of the 2013-2014 school year, six or seven of them were camping out. “In parks and such,” Bartlett said.
It’s just a guess, but I bet not much of what is on their school lunch tray ends up in the trash can.