Poor children hardest hit by school lunch restrictions

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Free, reduced meals decline sharply as district struggles with federal mandates

By Ben Carlson

A federal school lunch program ostensibly designed to make sure children don’t go hungry is having the opposite effect here, particularly among Anderson County’s poorest children.

The combined number of breakfasts and lunches served in public schools here has plummeted during the current school year, and school officials say the main reason is the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a program endorsed by, and largely blamed on, First Lady Michelle Obama. That program, which ramped up restrictions on sodium and calories in 2014, has hamstrung the district’s ability to prepare meals students will eat and left school officials concerned and searching for answers.

It has also eating into what has traditionally been a profitable school lunch program, with profits declining nearly 10 percent during this school year.

From August through December of 2014, the school district served 23,539 fewer breakfasts and lunches than during the same months in 2013, a decline of just over 8 percent. Fifty-four percent of that reduction came from students who receive free or reduced lunches, with the balance coming from students who pay full price.

Data obtained from the district show that 8,735 less breakfasts and lunches have been served to students who receive free meals this year when compared to last, and 3,938 less meals have been served to those who pay a reduced cost.

Students and parents say the reason for the reduction is simple: the food simply doesn’t taste good.

“My friend would not even eat today because she said the food is gross,” said high school student Madison Hagen. “Because she didn’t eat, she had to get crackers from the school nurse.”

“I’ve eaten the school lunches and I would not feed that to my dogs,” said Melinda Campbell, who has a daughter in school here. “When they have breakfast they have pancakes without syrup. What kind of a breakfast is that?”

Haley Abell, a sixth grader, said the food is getting progressively worse and that she often goes home hungry.

“You only get three things on your plate,” she said, adding that the only thing “good” is usually the fruit.

“I’m hungry, especially on days when I don’t like what they have, because there are only two or three good things that are served. I just wait and go home to eat after school.”

School officials said Monday that they share their students’ frustration, particularly when they know full well that students are coming to school hungry and leaving the same way.

“That’s my biggest concern,” said Ronnie Fields, district-wide director of operations and food service director. “Students who are on free or reduced, if they’re not bringing in food from home and aren’t eating at school and going hungry, what is the impact on their lives?

“We need to meet their basic biological needs, and all of those things have to take place before they can learn.”

“We don’t want children to be hungry,” said Superintendent Sheila Mitchell. “I wish we weren’t under such strict guidelines. They are clearly causing some kids not to eat.”

Fields added that he is also very concerned about student athletes not getting enough fuel to endure after-school practices.

“I was an athletic director and coach,” said Fields. “One of my concerns is, with all of these guidelines, is having sufficient calories for practices. That’s something these guidelines don’t take into account and it could be detrimental to [the athlete’s] health.”

The guidelines are tied directly to money the district receives from the federal government and not following them would result in that funding being cut off. Mitchell and Fields said they are aware that at least one school district in Kentucky and others nationally have dropped the federal funding, but don’t think doing so would be possible here due to having about 48 percent of students participate in free and reduced lunch plans. Were the district to drop federal funding, it would still be required to offer free and reduced lunches, driving up the cost paid by those who purchase their lunches outright.

The cafeterias have to self-sufficient, Fields said, meaning they have to generate enough revenue to cover all expenses, including labor. In years past that hasn’t been a problem.

“We’ve been able to have a healthy surplus,” he said, adding that districts aren’t supposed to keep more than three months of additional operating revenue on hand.

“Traditionally, we’d have to find things to spend money on to bring that down, like replacing older equipment.”

Since the start of this school year, however, Fields said revenue is off 9.5 percent.

“We’re basically trying to break even,” he said.

Fields and Mitchell said the district is doing what it can to improve the quality of the food served, including parent and student surveys, experimenting with new recipes and seeking temporary waivers on some aspects of the program.

The surveys, Mitchell said, are designed to find out which items children are most likely to eat. Once determined, she said the district will work to get those items on the menus more frequently.

Then there are what she called teasers — new recipes that will be made in smaller batches to allow children a chance to sample them before being served on a wider scale.

Fields said the district has already applied for a waiver on pasta in an attempt to at least temporarily be able to serve something other than strictly whole grain, which tends to lose its texture and flavor soon after being cooked.

“We might be able to get a waiver on spaghetti and macaroni and cheese, but only for this year and next,” Fields said. “After that we’d have to go back on whole grain.”

Fields said he tries to sample everything that is made, and Mitchell said she occasionally eats a school lunch.

“We know how it tastes,” Fields said.



Fewer meals being served

The school district has served 23,539 less meals through December of this school year than during the previous year.

It has served 8,735 less meals to those who receive them for free, and 3,938 to those who receive them at a reduced price for a total of 12,673 less meals.

It has served 10,866 less meals to those who purchase their meals outright.

In all, the district has served 16,170 fewer lunches and 7,369 fewer breakfasts.

Fewer calories allowed

Grades kindergarten through fifth are allowed 550-650 calories per meal.

Students in grades six through eight are allowed 600 to 700.

High school students are allowed 750-850.



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