HARRISON CITY, Pa. – Lunch is a drastically different experience now that Penn-Trafford High School is no longer bound by federal food regulations.
District officials removed the high school from the National School Lunch Program after years of struggling to comply with federal regulations that drove down student lunch participation and cafeteria revenues, the Tribune-Review reports.
The freedom from the strict restrictions on calories, fat, sugar, salt and other elements, came at the expense of federal funding to help cover free- and reduced-priced lunches for some students, but district business manager Brett Lago said the decision is already paying off in year one.
“We’ve lost, to date, about $40,000 worth of reimbursement, but our sales are up about $50,000 over last year,” he said. “Participation has gone from about 25 percent to 45 percent, and we’re still providing free lunches to all those students who would have been eligible under the school lunch program.”
Ditching the federal regulations allowed school food workers to redesign the cafeteria from a funnel system with few choices to a food court model with a deli and panini station, grill, main course counter and other stations, according to the news site.
“You get to choose what you want instead of being sort of funneled in and only having one choice,” junior Chase Zavarella said. “I think everyone is happier with the new selection.”
Senior Brianna Lander pointed to the cafeteria’s garbage cans as evidence that the new system is working better than the federal rules, which require all students to take a fruit or vegetable whether they wanted it or not.
“The trash cans were always full, sometimes overflowing,” Lander said. “You don’t see that now. People would go up to the snack line and get random junk food, where now you can get an actual meal and eat it.”
Lago said the new system gives high school students more control over what they eat, whereas the federal program mandated the same sized portions for a wide range of student body types and dietary needs.
“(The high school) involved the least risk” for opting out of the NSLP, he said. “Plus, kids at that age, they’re a little more informed and better at making smart choices for themselves because we still have a lot of healthy options. But as far as meal guidelines, you can’t say a 300-pound football player and a 90-pound cheerleader have the same (dietary) needs on a daily basis.”
Regardless, the change has already pulled the school’s food service budget from the red, he said.
“Right now, we’re looking at breaking even at the high-school level and hopefully the rest of the district as well,” Lago told the Tribune-Review.
Penn-Trafford High School is among more than 500 schools that have dropped out of the NSLP since strict nutrition regulations were imposed on schools through the Healthy Hunger Free Act championed by former first lady Michelle Obama.
The changes drove down school food sales nationwide for the first time in years and created an estimated $1 billion in additional food waste as students across the country revolted against the rules.
The House Freedom Caucus has called on the Trump administration to consider efforts to repeal the lunch rules during the first 100 days, while the School Nutrition Association will request “reasonable” flexibility for menu planning, according to the Quad City Times.
SNA spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner told the new site the group, which represents 55,0000 school food service workers, is developing a position paper for 2017 that’s expected to call for a relaxed requirements on whole grains and salt, and new rules for a la carte items and fruits and vegetables.