CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. – New federal school food regulations promoted by First Lady Michelle Obama are becoming a massive headache for many schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program.
And many, like Missouri’s Notre Dame Regional and Saxony Lutheran high schools, are taking matters into their own hands.
Those schools and numerous others across the country are ditching the federal regulations and the funding that comes with them to save their cafeteria programs, which have experienced a nose-dive in sales and skyrocketing waste since the new rules were implemented in 2012.
At Notre Dame, school officials turned to the professionals at My Daddy’s Cheesecake, Papa John’s, Tractors Classic American Grill and Chick-fil-A to bring in nutritious and tasty meals students enjoy for “restaurant Wednesdays,” SEMissourian.com reports.
Notre Dame’s lunch participation had dropped to about half of its 565 students and 65 faculty members under the federal guidelines, but jumped drastically to about 75 percent once officials did away with the tight restrictions on calories, fat, sodium, whole grains, and numerous other aspects of school meals.
“The biggest change is that you don’t have to be so strict with your menus. You don’t have to keep track of all the sodium and calories,” Notre Dame food service director Joan Dunning told SEMissourian.com.
“You can go back to a little more home cooking and not have to analyze it all to death, and by doing that can make it a little more tasty. You can put a little more butter or margarine in the vegetables,” she said, which means students are “not throwing it in the trash like they did before.”
Saxony Lutheran is also offering Chick-fil-A for lunch on Tuesdays and breakfast on Fridays, as well as chicken wings on Thursdays. By discarding the federal regulations, the district can now also offer chips, snack crackers, protein bars, muffins, cereal and Pop Tarts, many of which were banned until this year, the news site reports.
“We want to make sure we’re serving a well-rounded, healthy, balanced meal,” Saxony principal Mark Ruark told SEMissourian.com. “We don’t think the current federal guidelines give kids enough calories to sustain (them), especially those in extracurricular activities.”
“Kids will not eat what doesn’t taste good,” he said.
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That’s the same conclusion parents and school officials in Alabama are coming to.
At Cleburne County Schools, where lunch participation dropped by 29 percent under Michelle O’s rules, Maria Gilbert said her children will no longer eat school food. Her 11th grader says it’s “nasty” and has opted to bring microwave food from home, at least until the school removed the appliance from the cafeteria. Gilbert said she’s often forced to find a quick meal for her famished kids after school, AnnisonStar.com reports.
“The drive-through at McDonald’s is always full after school as Gilbert and other parents stop to feed their hungry children on the way home, she said,” according to the news site.
“Many of the student athletes need four times more calories than an average school lunch provides and therefore are bringing their lunch,” superintendent Claire Dryden told the Annison Star.
The district’s lunch sales have plummeted from 106,362 meals served in 2012-13 to 75,610 last year because of the federal lunch mandates, she said.
Statewide, lunch sales went from 131.9 million meals in 2011-12 to 127.1 million last year – a decrease of 4.8 million meals, the news site reports.
In Ohio, it’s the same story.
“We are seeing a trend where meal counts are going down just because students aren’t accepting all the changes that are taking place,” Ohio School Nutrition Association member Jeni Lange told ABC.
“There are fewer students eating.”
Experts at the National School Lunch Association estimate 1 million fewer students eat lunch at school than when the regulations went into effect in 2012.
A National School Nutrition Association survey also found food waste is up in 81.2 percent of schools nationwide, and a study by Cornell and Bringham Young universities estimates the waste at $4 million per day. Students in Los Angeles schools alone are throwing away $100,000 in food per day, ABC reports.
“I have to think that across the country, it has to be a staggering amount of food going to waste and I think there are people out there who could really use that food,” said Gene Kirchner, superintendent of Fort Thomas Independent Schools near Cincinnati, another district that dropped out of the National School Lunch Program.
In one Vermont school district, officials devised a plan to “repurpose” their lunch waste as feed for about 3,000 hogs at a local pig farm. In Medina, Ohio, volunteer parent Marcie Henning is taking advantage of the massive waste in her district to feed the homeless and less fortunate.
“Operation Lunch” lunch was launched two years ago, when the new lunch rules were implemented and waste went through the roof, and has so far provided 35,000 items, including 1,314 fruit cups and 841 oranges and tangerines, to those who can’t afford a “healthy” lunch, ABC reports.
“Students donate nutritious food to those who need it so it won’t go in the trash,” Henning told ABC.