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School Lunch Update: New Regs Throw Curveballs

Federal regulations on school lunches mean that districts face a number of challenges, including fewer full-price sales and calorie changes. Here's how Collingswood is faring.

In September 2012, Collingswood Patch reported on the impact of new federal guidelines for public school lunch menu planning, which took effect during the current school year. As the semester approached the halfway mark, we revisited the issue to see how things were going.

Some of the hurdles of the new system that were observed at the beginning of the year—smaller portions for older teens, larger portions for younger students, the regulations about what qualifies as an a la carte meal—haven't gone away.

And as students come to terms with the new regulations, they might not be buying enough lunches to support the program at a break-even cost. 

Here's our update on the impact of the new program thus far.

Estimating a loss

Collingswood Public Schools Business Administrator Beth Ann Coleman said that, at least for the first half of the year, all signs point to the district taking a financial hit on its meal program.

“I’m estimating a loss,” Coleman said. “I’m not sure how bad the loss is going to be, we are expecting one. I did write a letter to the Camden County superintendent.”

“We all agree kids should be eating healthier, but the thing that really killed us is the portion sizes,” she said. “At the high-school level, when they do have the ability to pick and choose, that meal cannot be counted [for reimbursement purposes].

Eating healthier also makes it harder to keep the new, healthy-choice items in stock, Coleman said.

“I don’t think the suppliers of the food items are ready,” she said. “We plan the menu and can’t get some of the stuff that we need.”

Coleman is also concerned that the financial loss from the food program could affect the accountability ratings of the district. But with no recourse except to raise the price of the meal—something in which she has no interest—she’s running out of options.

“This is really spending that is out of our control,” Coleman said. “I can’t continue to raise the price of lunch when people are out of work either. Why raise the price of a meal when the meal is smaller? It almost doesn’t make sense.”

'Sales have taken a tumble'

Norman Horn, director of sales and marketing for Nutri-Serve Food Management, which supplies food to the district, agreed that the economy plays a big part in how often the school sells lunches under the new meal plan.

With the exception of students who receive free or reduced-price lunch, he said, they’re just not buying as often. Even his own kids alternate between packing and buying.

“If you paid three days a week, you’re buying once now; if you paid two, you’re buying one,” Horn said. “It’s hard to say if it’s the economy, which hasn’t rebounded yet; mom and dad just can’t afford five meals a week to purchase. 

In September, Eileen Tarcelli, food service director for Collingswood schools, told Patch that 523 students are eligible to receive free school lunches; another 137 may buy lunch at the reduced price of 40¢. Participation in the program is currently at about 70 percent.

“A la carte sales have taken a tumble too,” Horn said. “Mom doesn’t have an extra dollar a day.”

Horn thinks the system is likely to catch on among elementary school kids “because you can teach them.” But the increased portions—remember, calorie counts are up for younger kids, down for older ones—“are a little bit much for some of them.

“Especially for second and first grade, it’s a lot of lunch for a little kid to eat, and they only have 22 minutes,” he said. “You’ve got to slam it down, and that’s if you don’t talk to anybody.”

Creatures of habit

Part of the problem, Horn said, is that his customers—school-age children—are creatures of habit.

“Their local restaurants or fast food places aren’t putting their chicken patties on whole grain [bread],” Horn said. “We’re feeding them dark brown hamburger rolls and it’s not at the top of the list of things that they love.

Plus, as portion sizes are reduced for things like sandwich rolls, he said, the district has trouble combating the perception that its customers are getting the same value for their dollar with a smaller plating.

“We used to use a 10-inch tortilla shell for a wrap; now you’re down to a 6- or a 7-inch,” Horn said. “I can’t give a big steak roll any more. They put that maximum limit on the grain."

Kids "see that value for the dollar," Horn said.

"It’s just the perception of what I got last year and what I got this year isn’t the same," he said. "It looks smaller, and it is a little smaller.”

Horn also notes that the vendors that manufacture many of the products sold in the school district are not able to reformulate their plants on the fly to retail new foods that are sold exclusively to schools.

In fact, some are already dropping out—like Smuckers, manufacturers of the “Uncrustables” peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, which were great for peanut-free schools, he said, because they limited exposure to children with allergies.

“Some vendors are going to find out that it’s worthwhile to do it; others are going to say, ‘I can’t change my whole world,’” Horn said.

“We’ve gotta muddle through it, hold our course, and hope for the best next year.”

Making an impact?

Perhaps the most frustrating piece of the whole exercise, Horn said, is the idea that there’s likely going be many more longitudinal studies conducted before it’s known whether these changes have had the desired impact.

It’s especially difficult to estimate this without knowing whether exercise programs have had any effect—especially with plenty of schools unable to have recess daily. That’s to say nothing of the fact that the federal a la carte regulations are still in the public comment period.

“It took us 30 years to get here; are you not going to know for 10 years? Five years?” Horn said. “There’s not a whole lot on recess; getting kids moving. The easiest thing to do is change the food they’re eating, but that’s got to be coming too.”

Oswald: kids aren't unhappy with changes

Collingswood Superintendent Scott Oswald said that despite the hassles, he hasn't had any luck searching out any children who have had issues with the new arrangements.

“I went into the high school cafeteria months ago and searched for kids who were unhappy; they said they weren’t,” Oswald said.

He acknowledged that some of the kids in the district have opted to bring lunches from home, but added, “We’re going to have folks staffing whether there’s 10 kids or 100 to buy.”

From a nutritional standpoint, Oswald said, “There are kids who probably shouldn’t be eating what they’re eating now if they’re going home and sitting on the couch.”

But whether they eat everything they take—or even take enough different food-group items for the district to count their lunch as a full, reimbursable meal—food costs are going up, he said.

“The double whammy is that healthy foods, like it or not, are more expensive,” Oswald said. “Some of the issues are issues of conscience—kids who have to take everything on the menu, and some of them just aren’t going to eat it.

“We encourage them to share [things they might not eat],” he said, “but it doesn’t count as a reimbursable lunch unless they take all the items.”

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