CHICAGO – Hummus is too fatty, pretzels are too salty. Even hard-boiled eggs and yogurt don’t make the cut.
Those restrictions and others imposed on schools through the revamped “healthier” National School Lunch Program convinced officials in Illinois’ second largest school district to forfeit nearly $1 million in federal lunch aid to serve students food they want to eat, rather than what the government tells them to, CBS reports.
“So far so good. The meals, as you’ve seen, look fantastic, and there’s a lot of excitement,” District 214 Associate Superintendent Cathy Johnson told the news station as officials recently unveiled their new menu.
The federal “healthier” school lunch overhaul, championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, has been a boondoggle for public schools across the country. The tightened restrictions, intended to combat childhood obesity, have driven more than 1 million students away from school lunches and created over $1 billion per year in food waste since they were implemented in 2012.
The drastic drop-off in lunch sales is prompting an increasing number of school districts to ditch the regulations and attached federal funding to save their floundering cafeteria programs. Just this week, two other New York school districts dropped out.
District 214 administrators told CBS the unreasonable restrictions on protein, sodium and fat made preparing meals students would buy nearly impossible, while the district-inspired menu “would be far simpler,” according to Johnson.
Crispy falafel with flatbread and rice pilaf, and pasta primavera with roasted vegetables and olive oil – two new menu items in District 214’s lineup – would have violated the federal regulations because of low protein content, for example.
“What would happen is the sales simply wouldn’t be there, and the offerings that we would currently have wouldn’t be available,” Johnson told CBS.
The district simply wasn’t selling enough lunches under the federal restrictions to qualify for reimbursement, so they decided to forego a potential $900,000 in government lunch aid to go it alone.
“It’s a reimbursement, so if we don’t sell food, we won’t receive that $900,000 anyways,” Johnson said.
The freedom from the federal school food police also allows the district to serve the snacks students want, rather than following federal regulations on those foods imposed on schools this year.
The snack rules have forced many school districts to remove profitable vending machines, or to cancel school bake sales and ban birthday cupcakes to comply with food restrictions.
“Vending machines at District 214 schools remained the same, offering some healthy snacks alongside the traditional candy bars and chips,” CBS reports.
“In the cafeteria, grab-and-go pizzas and hot dogs weren’t going anywhere, either.”
“There are some a la carte items that are more or less tired and true, and our students and our staff will certainly be continuing to partake in those,” Johnson told the news station.
District officials plan to evaluate their new menu and lunch sales quarterly, but told CBS they’re confident their lunch program will survive just fine without federal lunch funds.