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Students order up pizza at AA Kingston Middle School in Potsdam. Photo: Julie Grant
Students order up pizza at AA Kingston Middle School in Potsdam. Photo: Julie Grant

What does Congress' school lunch debate mean for North Country schools?

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New regulations for school lunch passed in 2010 promised to make kids' meals healthier, with more vegetables, fruits and whole grains. But some school lunch directors say it's been difficult and expensive to implement the new rules.

Now, House Republicans hope to bass a bill that will delay the regulations. Sarah Harris and Martha Foley talked about what the food fight playing out in Congress means for North Country schools.

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Sarah Harris
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Martha Foley: Give us an overview of school lunch policy.

Sarah Harris: Well, in 2010 the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act was signed into law. Those were the nutrition standards championed by First Lady Michelle Obama. And the goal was to make school lunches healthier by including more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Schools started putting those laws in place in 2012. Right now, the GOP’s put forward an agriculture spending bill. And the school lunch program is part of it. Republican lawmakers are saying that the nutrition requirements are overreaching: they’re too hard, they’re too expensive. And there’s a provision in the bill that says if schools have lost money implementing the new nutrition standards, then they can waive them for the coming year.

The bill is backed by Republicans, by the School Nutrition Association, which is a group of cafeteria professionals, and by food industry lobbyists. Michelle Obama is opposed to the bill and says reneging on the standards would be a cop-out when it comes to fighting obesity and encouraging healthy eating.

MF: Healthier school lunch seems like an obvious good idea. But it seems like actually making lunch healthier is where it gets complicated.

SH: That’s right. A lot of schools had to drastically revise their menus when the new standards came into effect. They had to figure out how to stay within specific limits on how much grain, protein, calories and sodium kids are eating in any given lunch week. They had to incorporate leafy greens and colorful vegetables in their meals. And providing that food gets expensive. I went to Watertown this week and spoke with Craig Orvis, food service director at Watertown City School District: He said they're "looking at 20 to 25 percent increase in our food cost over the last two years, most of that in fresh fruits and vegetables and produce."

And at the same time, Orvis says, the number of kids eating school lunch went down: "Our numbers have gone down, on an average, of about 400 lunches a day. To say we’re losing 400 meals a day, that’s a lot be losing. We’re gaining some back. We lost over 500 the first year."

SH: That’s about a tenth of Watertown students who aren’t eating school lunch anymore. And it’s asking a lot, I think, to change kids’ eating habits. Just because a kid takes healthy food in the line doesn’t mean they actually eat it. Craig Orvis said they had a big issue with a lot of that produce just getting thrown out.

MF: Are most North Country schools facing that same conundrum — more expensive food and less kids to eat it?

SH: I think, in large part, yes. Most North Country schools really struggle to balance their budgets. And when the cost of food goes up, it really affects the bottom line. Some school districts around Albany have opted out of the school lunch program. There’s no state or federal law that says they have to participate. But in the North Country, a lot of students qualify for free and reduced lunch and lunch is a meal they really need. So if you don’t provide it, or you charge them a la carte, then they won’t be able to afford to eat. So opting out probably doesn’t make sense in our region.

There’s an issue with vendors also. The companies that sell food to schools haven’t caught up with the changes in law, so it’s hard to find products that meet the criteria.

And there’s some debate over whether the regulations themselves really make sense. Watertown, Potsdam, and Edwards Knox school districts all used to make big batches of homemade soup for students. But because you can’t guarantee the servings of each type of vegetable in each ladle of soup, the soup doesn’t count as vegetables. But the calories and the sodium do count. So, no soup anymore.

MF: What happens next?

SH: Well the House will vote on the bill and it’s possible Democrats will come up with an amendment. If it passes, the bill will go the Senate. Michelle Obama and the White House strongly oppose the bill. So we’ll have to wait and see if it gets beyond the House.

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