Why it's so hard to serve healthy food in schools

The White House waded into in the middle of a Congressional food fight over how to regulate school lunch. 

The debate stems from the Health Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which put in place new rules aimed at getting kids to eat healthier by requiring schools to serve whole grains and more fruits and vegetables.

But now many school districts argue the new rules are too expensive.

The federal government reimburses schools $3.01 for a lunch, which is supposed to cover everything: the food, the labor and things like new kitchen equipment or repairs.

But to get the money, schools need to follow the rules.

Gitta Grether-Sweeney runs the nutrition program for Portland Public Schools in Portland, Oregon, where every day the district serves about 20,000 kids lunch.

“The rules went into effect last year where you had to serve more fruits and vegetables,” she said --  half cup of either with every meal.

Starting in July, the guidelines get stricter. Nationwide, schools have to serve more whole grains and less sodium.

Now Congress is debating whether to relax some of those rules -- a move First Lady Michelle Obama and her supporters vowed to fight.

“What we still believe is a big fight is holding steady on the sodium requirements and the whole grain requirements for school lunches,” said Claire Benjamin, managing director of Food Policy Action, a Washington DC-based group that scores lawmakers votes on food and farming policy. “When we did these rules we knew that some of these changes were going to be hard and it was going to take some time to implement.”

To help school districts out, the feds offered to pay six cents more per lunch.

But Grether-Sweeney said to meet the new federal requirements Portland Public Schools had to order more fruits and vegetables last year -- a lot more.

“I spent over $200,000 more in produce. But that six cents only covered about 60 percent of that,” she said.

Along with the requirement to serve healthier lunches came an unfortunate consequence, Grether-Sweeney said. 

The district saw a dramatic increase in trash from students dumping the unwanted produce. One small school threw away 55 gallons of fruits and veggies every week.

“In a number of our schools, we started composting because of this,” Grether-Sweeney said. 

She argued that the current mandates aren’t working and that kids should be able to choose which healthy foods they want.

“They’re not going to eat it necessarily just because you put it on their plate,” she said.

Before the new rules, the number of kids eating lunch in the Portland Public School District had been steadily increasing.

Now Grether-Sweeney said the district is serving three percent fewer students school lunch compared to last year. Nationally, nearly one million fewer kids are eating school lunch this year, according to USDA data.

Parke Wilde, a food economist at Tufts University, said it’s hard to know if schools are just having a difficult time transitioning to the new rules or -- more troubling -- that kids today are more reluctant to eat healthy foods.

“Everybody can sympathize with what it’s like to be a school food service director, reading all the small print on the new school meals requirements and thinking to him or herself, ‘How am I going to do this?'" Wilde said.

But on the other hand, he said, without rules there would probably be districts that don’t serve healthy meals.

Congress is still debating what will happen with the school lunch program, but as of right now schools will be serving even healthier -- and more expensive meals -- next fall.

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