The Battle Over School Lunch Programs

The USDA scales back nutrition guides for school lunch programs while schools struggle to encourage participation from students and payment from parents.

As usual, when it comes to children, there are two distinct sides to an issue, and school lunch programs are no exception.

For thousands of parents across the country, former first lady Michelle Obama's strict nutrition guidelines for school lunches created a problem. Though healthier, with whole-wheat grains, non-fat milk and an increase of fruits and vegetables, their children were still going hungry, because many were refusing to eat, complaining of the taste. Some even went so far as to post pictures of their school trays on social media with the hashtag, "#ThanksMichelleObama."

On the other side, however, was the first lady, nutritionists and thousands of other parents who pointed out the nutritional value of the meals, and the fact that many children from low-income homes do not have access to healthy food, making their only balanced meal the one they received from the school.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue sees both sides, however.

During a trip to visit a Virginia elementary school in May, Perdue laid out his vision for school lunch programs, and it includes a bit of give and take from each stance.

The U.S. is Not Going Back to the Old School Lunch Program

Perdue made it clear he was not turning the clock back on the progress Obama made against childhood obesity during her years at the White House, and agreed that schools should be serving meals that nutritionally benefit every child.

"I applaud first lady Michelle Obama for addressing obesity problems in the past,” he said. “I want to assure those of you who are concerned that we are reversing nutritional standards — no way. We’re not unwinding or winding back any nutritional standards at all."

However, Perdue says a student who goes hungry because they didn't like the taste of their school lunch isn't helping, either.

Food that’s thrown in the trash cannot nourish any child, and frankly that trash can doesn’t need any nourishment.”

Under Perdue, many of the regulations passed under the previous administration will remain, though some will be eased to allow schools more flexibility. The main changes include:

  • Schools can apply for a waiver for the whole-wheat grain requirement
  • Flavored, one percent milk will be permitted back in schools
  • Sodium-reduction targets will be delayed

During a speech to a group of 7,000 at the School Nutrition Association last month, Perdue said the changes he's making to school lunch programs will not have an affect on the obesity epidemic because of what children are allowed to eat outside of school.

When you look at the obesity epidemic that we’ve got out there, that’s not happening at schools. It’s happening at home and on the road to and from school.”

School Lunch Programs Blow Budgets 

It's not just a matter of taste and nutrition; for schools, it has to make dollars and cents.

Many school administrators have complained about regulation requirements for whole grains and low-fat dairy options, saying the healthier items are costly, while less students are buying the meals due to taste.

At the same time, schools are looking to find ways to deal with students who cannot afford to purchase lunch, either due to their parents' inability to pay, or forgetting to refill their lunch balance.

In the past, schools have used a variety of ways to remind parents their children need money for school meals, everything from letters pinned to shirt fronts and hands stamped with the message, "I need lunch money." However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is encouraging schools to find better ways to deal with student lunch debts, and avoid causing students unnecessary embarrassment.

Again, it comes down to cost. According to a 2014 report, 39 percent of schools in the country provide a no-nutrition meal to students who can't pay for food, known as the "cheese sandwich of shame," and six percent simply refuse to feed students who can't pay.

New Mexico Law Enforces Nutritional School Lunch Despite Student Debts

Earlier this year, New Mexico passed the Hunger-Free Students' Bill of Rights Act which forces schools to work out lunch debts directly with parents, and continuing to provide students with hot and nutritional meals.

“The piece that is really different in this legislation is that you cannot turn a child away no matter what they owe,” Nancy Cathey, who oversees food services at Las Cruces Public Schools in New Mexico, said.

While providing free meals to students who can't pay will increase the school lunch program debt, which hovers around $8,000 for the Las Cruces school district, relieving the burden of money issues from shoulders of students is worth it.

Jennifer Ramo, executive director of New Mexico Appleseed, an advocacy group on poverty issues, agreed.

You don’t take away food from children. You feed them and you settle the bill later.”

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