School menus need more choices
School districts in Michigan, and throughout the U.S., are weighed down by the lighter-calorie meals they are forced to feed their students. Congress had an opportunity to grant a temporary reprieve to schools this month, but lawmakers refused to give schools any real relief.
For the past two years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has enforced new school lunch and breakfast requirements, thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by First Lady Michelle Obama. That law brought strict requirements to cafeterias across the country.
The smaller portions and healthier options haven’t moved the needle on child obesity — which was the intent. But they have strained school budgets, even though large amounts of the pricier food are wasted each day. Kids aren’t eating it.
This past summer, even more stringent snack guidelines took effect, preventing schools from offering drinks or afternoon pick-me-ups deemed too sugary. Even bake sales and other fundraisers during school hours or activities have to meet the same standards. So forget about doughnuts, cupcakes or other tasty treats.
When Congress passed its gigantic spending bill, it didn’t include a temporary waiver Republicans wanted to give schools that were losing money on the lunch program a reprieve from federal meal standards. The House GOP had pushed for the year-long waiver since the summer, but members were criticized fiercely by the first lady and other proponents of the changes.
Only two very minor changes got included in this latest legislation and they won’t do much to ease the burden on schools. One freezes existing sodium limits, which were going to increase over time, and another gives states the ability to waive whole grains standards if schools are struggling to meet the requirements.
Daren Bakst, who studies agricultural policy at the Heritage Foundation, has followed the negative effects of the school lunch changes.
“The overly prescriptive federal standards are driving up costs and leading to massive plate waste,” Bakst observed recently.
School officials, including the National School Boards Association, have made their concerns clear, but Congress didn’t listen.
Students are also making stands against the tasteless food they’re served. A Government Accountability Office report from January found that students have held boycotts and organized lunch strikes.
When the healthier school lunch requirements took effect in the 2012-13 school year, student participation in school lunches dropped by 1.1 million students.
Some schools have left the federal school lunch program, deciding to give up the government subsidies in lieu of finding more cost-effective options —and food students will actually eat. In Michigan, however, that’s not possible. The Michigan Department of Education, as required by state law, doesn’t give individual districts the option to drop out.
No matter how well-intentioned these regulations are, they are causing real headaches for districts. What individuals schools serve is best decided by parents and local school officials.
Congress should acknowledge this experiment hasn’t worked and start rolling back some of these school lunch requirements.