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As a superintendent of schools, I am speaking out to report on and fight for hungry students in Vermont, but not likely for the reasons most readers might think. It’s time to tell the real story here. This fall, schools throughout Vermont began grappling with the implementation of the new federal nutrition guidelines for school food service programs. This has got to be the worst case of serious unintended consequences resulting from the best of intentions I have seen in my 28 years in public education and here’s why.
Like NCLB (No Child Left Behind), we are once again faced with one-size-fits-all legislation that does not consider the vast differences between a state like Vermont and other states. But, what is far worse is the inability for those individuals working in positions of authority within our wonderful state to not recognize and advocate for more reasonable flexibility in implementing these standards, knowing that the needs of individual communities differ, and so do the individual needs of students.
The new regulations are a no-brainer. Any reasonable person could support more fruits and vegetables, red and yellow vegetables, whole grains and less sodium and trans fats in school breakfasts and lunches. However, the ill-thought-out, rigid, one-size-fits-all plan as to how to achieve this is already creating seriously hungry students in our schools who are choosing more and more each day to not participate at all in our programs. They are flooding to fast food restaurants and quick stops if campuses are open, hitting vending machines hard and carrying in backpacks with less than healthy choices because they are desperate. As if this is not bad enough, those of us who can see the up-close and personal ramifications of this already know that the farm-to-school and localvore initiatives will be in serious jeopardy, local businesses will see a serious decrease in revenues from local schools, and local budgets will revert back to large subsidies to support school food service programs as they did in the past, because they no longer will be self sustaining, costing Vermont taxpayers and increasing the demands on the Ed Fund. Let me give you some specifics.
For the past six years, the seven schools in the Washington West Supervisory Union have worked hard to provide award-winning food services programs. We employ highly talented food service directors and on-site chefs. We already are nearly all wheat/whole grain, largely organic and offer students an all-you-can-eat wide array of colorful fruits and vegetables. Our once robust salad bar at Harwood Union High School, which in my own opinion is a close second to the Windjammer Restaurant in South Burlington just to give you a point of reference, is down 50 percent in participation in just four weeks of school. The HUHS hot lunch line is down 10 to 20 percent depending on the day. Every day my email inbox and voicemail are filled with messages from parents with their own personal stories, begging me to help. Why is this really happening you ask? Consider these points.
First, because of the severe calorie restrictions, not only are portion sizes smaller and certain ingredients eliminated or used sparingly, students are not allowed to self serve at the salad bar as they knew it in the past. The Harwood Union salad bar is a mere shell of itself. It still offers the same unlimited wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, but can no longer contain hard-boiled eggs, lean turkey and ham, blue, feta and cheddar cheese, cottage cheese, broccoli, cabbage and whole wheat pasta salads, beans, nuts and seeds, whole wheat rolls and, yes, homemade pumpkin bread once in awhile. The main reason for this is that students in kindergarten through 5th grade are allowed up to 650 calories, in grades 6 to 8, 700 calories, and in grades 9 to 12, 850 calories. The school cannot enforce this requirement if students are self serving. If students are actually eating three square meals a day, this might work fine, but for most kids this isn’t the case. Many high school students skip breakfast, rely on lunch as their main meal of the day and don’t return home until 9 p.m. because of co-curricular activities. For many of our free/reduced lunch students, this is their big meal of the day.
The new enforcement paperwork requirements for our chefs now add an additional 30 to 40 minutes most days. In addition, the stringent requirements to calculate all the measurements of all ingredients are forcing programs to do the following:
Condiments need to be premeasured. Schools that have made them from scratch and/or served them in bulk can no longer do so because the students might exceed the calorie restrictions. Our elementary students were not allowed catsup with their mac and cheese because they would have been over the limit.
Canning and freezing from our gardens are impacted due to time constraints and lack of scientific expertise in easily calculating nutrient contents. Paul Morris, food director and chef at Harwood Union, prepares and freezes pesto for the year from basil from a local farm. This year he was unable to do so.
We will need to purchase more prepackaged/processed foods because the nutrient information is already located on the side of the bag or box, increasing the amount of preservatives in the food. Scratch recipes will simply take too much time to calculate to this level of detail.
Menus will become “forced rotational,” say every six weeks, and far less “scratch” cooking will be possible, creating boredom and seriously reducing the ability to reuse ingredients, including fruits and vegetables. Yesterday’s roasted vegetables will not show up in that whole wheat balsamic pasta salad on the salad bar the next day.
We will increase waste, driving up costs and straining the environment. In schools like Warren, serving family-style meals, which has long successfully been in practice and has kept costs down, will no longer be possible for several reasons under these guidelines.
On the financial front, at first blush one might conclude that if schools are using more fruits and vegetables, this would be great for our local farms. Not so if the students simply don’t buy the lunch. It really isn’t going to matter what we want to have kids eat if we cannot get them through the line!
The Harwood Union program already reports purchasing 50 percent less Cabot products. They also annually spend about $50,000 between KC Bagels, Red Hen Bakery and Flatbread Pizza, all within a five-mile radius. While all of these local businesses are working closely with us to change what they can, when the now 52 percent whole grain requirement goes to 100 percent next fall, we likely will not be able to use these products. For example, the organic wheat bread that we have used from Red Hen for years uses about five ingredients. The flour is milled differently than the enriched wheat flour we are now required to use. Therefore, we will be forced to purchase bread products from a commercial distributor whose bread contains some 32 ingredients and more preservatives. This is just one example of many.
In order to give the reader a point of reference, the seven schools in the WWSU spend approximately $1,076,197 on our food service programs. The Harwood program in 2005-06 was running a $113,000 deficit. We hired a chef, reinvented the program with “buy local” and farm-to-school and finished FY 2011 in the black by $7,000. We, along with other large schools in Vermont, are quickly going to return to those deficits if we do not act. Hence, thousands of increased dollars will be needed from the Ed Fund.
In summary, the student, parent and chef testimonials are many and extremely heartfelt as well as practical. Reports from our coaches are filled with examples of athletes nearly passing out, and loading up on junk food right before a meet. These regulations and smaller portions would have you believe that the 6 foot 5 inch senior football player has the same caloric needs as the 4 foot 10 inch seventh-grade non-athlete. Our kids are hungry, and they are not making smart choices after school and before practice. Our cross-country runners expend a huge amount of calories during training (and meets) and not being properly fueled is dangerous to these young athletes. Hunger leads to fatigue in all athletes and fatigue leads to injuries as surely as poor training and holes in a playing field. The lack of protein available during school lunch through the salad bar for cross-country runners that may run up to 50 miles/week is dangerous and unacceptable. Coaches and parents are bringing in food because their students have so little energy. John Kerrigan, HUHS cross-country coach for the past 37 years, reported, “I had one girl almost pass out this week in a workout. I asked her what happened, and her words, not mine, “I did not have enough to eat at lunch."
The schools in our SU, like many in Vermont, gave up french fries and onion rings from a fryer years ago. We are about scratch cooking, using fresh fruits and vegetables, buying local, improving the bottom line and, most importantly, customer satisfaction with students and parents. Childhood obesity is a serious problem. The solution, however, cannot be to put ALL students on a serious calorie-restricted diet. We also should be teaching students how to make healthy choices, not to have those choices prescribed and regulated, to achieve balance and moderation in food selections necessary for their individual needs and, most importantly, what to take and not what to throw away because it had to be on their tray.
The situation we find ourselves in is NOT one of growing pains, nor can it be resolved with creativity and tweaking as has been suggested by those in charge. The train is coming, and we are standing right on the tracks. It is only a short matter of time before our food service programs in Vermont will all be “failing” under this rigid one-size-fits-all legislation. It is time to rewrite this legislation. The solution is simple. Most schools in Vermont had already achieved the goal, while continually striving to improve each and every year. The problem does not lie with the minimums, mandated choices of fruits and vegetables, etc., but rather with the maximums and the inability for individual families and local communities to make choices beyond that. I encourage each of you to speak out to our senators and representatives on both state and national levels. Vermont can lead the charge. While we wait for relief, supervisory unions like mine will be forced to investigate and evaluate the costs, financially and otherwise, of non-compliance.