BALDWINSVILLE, N.Y. – Another two bite the dust.
Central New York’s Fayetteville-Manlius and Baldwinsville school districts are the latest to ditch the National School Lunch Program, which was revamped in 2010 under the guidance of First Lady Michelle Obama in an effort to fight childhood obesity.
Strict limits on calories, fat, sugar, carbohydrates, sodium and other aspects of the school lunch imposed by the federal government on schools participating in the free and reduced lunch program has not only increased cafeteria costs, they’ve resulted in a drastic drop in the number of participating students.
At Fayetteville-Manlius, Baldwinsville, and thousands of other districts the new regulations resulted in a sharp downturn in students who eat school lunch and a sharp increase in food waste. The lost sales are threatening the viability of cafeteria programs in schools across the country, prompting many to do without federal subsidies to serve students food they’ll actually buy and eat.
“Grilled cheese and tomato soup was a very popular lunch,” Baldwinsville Superintendent David Hamilton told WRVO public media. “We couldn’t offer that under the new guidelines of the federal government. Spaghetti and meatballs, we couldn’t offer that either.”
As a result of last year’s school lunch menu high school lunch sales in Baldwinsville plummeted from about 600 to 430 students per day.
“We all want a lower carb diet. But it’s hard to sell a sub on something that looks more like a piece of paper than a sub roll,” Hamilton said. “I understand the shift but now the students aren’t opting to eat any of that. They’re stepping away entirely.”
Fayetteville-Manlius schools are experiencing the same phenomenon, and took a survey of students before deciding to trash the federal lunch regulations. The survey’s common theme: portion sizes are too small and the food just doesn’t taste that great, WRVO reports.
That district’s new cafeteria plan “will look more like a food court, with more grab and go items along with a deli bar and a hot meal item,” according to the news site.
The School Nutrition Association conducted a survey at the group’s annual conference recently that showed roughly 25 percent of school lunch programs have lost money for more than six months because of the federally inspired bland school food options, the Detroit News reports.
“The association says that according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, student lunch participation is down in 49 states under the new standards, with more than 1 million fewer students choosing school lunch each day,” according to the News.
A recent Government Accountability Institute report estimates the total amount of wasted school lunches has also reached about $1 billion per year, according to Fox.
In Michigan’s Oakland County, for example, 4,700 fewer students are eating school lunches than when the federal regulations went into effect in 2012.
“The challenge has been in maintaining student participation along with managing the rising costs associated with the new regs,” Oakland schools’ child nutrition consultant Lori Adkins told the News.
“School food service programs are required to be self-supporting and are not subsidized by a school district’s general fund. Therefore, it’s vital for program revenues to meet or exceed expenses annually for a program to remain fiscally sustainable,” she said.
Warren Consolidated Schools Superintendent Robert Livernois said he believes the federal regulations are creating a two-tier school lunch scenario in which poor kids are forced to eat school lunch, while others are bringing food from home.
Free and reduced lunches in the district are on the rise, while paying students are fleeing the program, he said.
“The students are clearly voting with their pocket book,” Livernois told the News. “What I see down the road, as these regulations become stiffer, is our paying customers continuing to vote with their wallet and going elsewhere for their meals.”
“I see the program morphing into a free and reduced meal program,” he said.
A new round of federal school snack regulations that took effect July 1 also seem to be making the revenue problems worse. All school snacks must now meet U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, which means many popular vending machine items and school bake sale goods are now off the table.
In Bloomfield, New York schools, “Snapple flavored iced teas were wildly popular, and the single Snapple machine made $10,000 annually,” but officials were forced to remove the machine to comply with the new snack rules.
“When you lose a cash cow, that is not very good,” Todd Fowler, food service director at Bloomfield and Canandaigua schools, told the Henrietta Post.
More than 75 percent of districts in New York are now losing money because of the federal lunch and snack regulations, he said.
They’re also cutting into school fundraisers that schools rely on for student field trips and other activates, according to Tammy Brace, a secretary for Naples Central School and active member of the Naples School Association.
The federal lunch regulations now also apply to bake sales held during school hours, which used to raise between $200 and $300 per sale, she told the Post.
“We will do our best to raise money in other ways,” such as sales after school and during evening events, Brace said.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives are considering legislation to provide exemptions from the lunch regulations for schools that are losing substantial revenue, though Michelle Obama has vowed to fight for her pet project “until the bitter end.”
President Obama has also promised to veto the legislation if it makes it to his desk, the Associated Press reports.