School Board Questions Staying with National School Lunch Program

October 3, 2014
by Barbara O’Brien

When Rhonda Beckham, the food services director for SAU 95, completed her presentation on the latest stipulations mandated through the National School Lunch Program, two Windham School Board members wanted to know what would happen if the school district chose not to participate in the federal program.

“What are the ramifications of not participating in the federal program?”  Vice-chairman Dennis Senibaldi asked.  “What are the penalties if we practice civil disobedience?” board member Ken Eyring queried.  Neither Senibaldi nor Eyring appeared to like the idea that what students can have for school lunch is being mandated by the federal government.  The federal standards have been tightening over the past few years, due to a push toward healthier eating for American children.  Eyring said he feels that the federal government is micro-managing what is served in schools.  “I’m disturbed by these mandates,” Eyring said.

SAU 95 Business Administrator Adam Steel said non-participation in the national program could increase lunch prices by about $1.15 per meal.  Free and reduced meals would also no longer be available for students who meet financial guidelines and would likely have to be funded through the school district budget, instead.  Currently, about five percent of Windham students are receiving free or reduced cost meals, a considerably lower percentage than most school districts across New Hampshire.  Windham also currently receives a 30-cent per meal federal reimbursement for all hot meals served in the school district; an amount totaling about $200,000 last year.  The federal food commodity program administered through the United States Department of Agriculture would also no longer be available to the Windham School District, if ties with the national lunch program were to be severed.

Beginning with the 2014-2015 school year, the new federal mandates include serving 51 percent whole grain foods.  Students are also required to take a fruit or vegetable with their meals (unless purchasing ala carte items).  As for what are termed “smart snacks,” the first ingredient listed must be a fruit or protein.  Sugar cannot be listed as the first or predominant ingredient.  These snacks must contain less than 200 calories per serving.  Beckham said she has had to trim about 50 percent of the former snacks from the selection, due to their sugary ingredients.  As for entrees served for school lunches, allowable fat and sodium levels have been reduced this year and no trans-fats are allowed.  Entrees must now contain less than 35 percent sugar.  Beverages offered to students in grades one through eight include water with no additives, non-fat and low-fat milk and 100 percent fruit and vegetable juices.  A wider selection is provided in high school, but these additional beverages must be less than 20 ounces and calorie-free.  There are also regulations for “healthy celebrations,” including birthday parties and holiday festivities.

Beckham noted that these federal regulations do not impact lunches that students bring in from home.  It’s truly a parental choice to buy school lunch or send a lunch from home,” Superintendent Winfried Feneberg explained.  “The school lunch program is continuing to do well,” he said.  “The children are eating their lunches.”  “The program is being managed exceptionally well,” Feneberg continued.  “It continues to be in the black.”  Statistics presented indicate that 23 percent of students nationwide participate in the school lunch program, while 42 percent of Windham students are participating.

When questioned about the amount of waste she sees at the end of a lunch period, Beckham replied, “The kids are learning to eat healthy.”  “It shows in the lunch room,” she added.  Windham does not automatically serve students fruits and vegetables they don’t want, Beckham explained.  “We offer it to them.”  If the students choose not to take a fruit or vegetable, then they are charged the ala carte price, rather than the full meal cost.  Feneberg said it has been noted that just as much food brought from home tends to be tossed into the garbage, as that which is purchased in the lunch room.

One of the issues that all the school board members seemed to oppose is the fact that unserved lunch food cannot be donated to area food pantries or kitchens, according to federal regulations.

Steel said that he was not aware of any school districts in the State of New Hampshire that have withdrawn from the federal lunch program.  Steel said that the concept of leaving the federal program is “a complex issue,” but one that “merits investigation.”  More information on the subject will be made available at a future school board meeting.