BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Some well-intended reforms to school lunch programs across the country have led to unintended consequences causing problems in local schools.
You are probably aware of First Lady Michelle Obama's signature effort as first lady to fight childhood obesity and make school lunches healthier. While the meals are undoubtedly healthier now, they are apparently less appealing to many school children, which has led to fewer kids eating school lunch according to local school nutrition officials.
New Mandates Limit Flexibility
The lack of flexibility and requirement that fruits or vegetables be put on every child's plate has driven up costs and resulted in a lot of untouched food being thrown away.
"It bothers me when I come in and look at the trash can, and I see half of the trash can is fruits and vegetables, and that money is being wasted," Brunswick County Schools Nutrition Director Robert Parker told WECT before the school lunch rush at North Brunswick High School recently.
Before these Healthy Hunger-Free Act Initiatives started being phased in in 2010, schools gave kids the option of a fruit or vegetable at lunch, but they were not required to put it on the child's tray if the child didn't want it. Now, in order to be eligible for federal reimbursements, students must take a fruit or vegetable with their lunch.
The requirements don't stop there. Federal guidelines dictate everything from the color of the fruits and vegetables that must be served, to how often they must be offered, to how many total calories are allowed per meal, along with sodium and saturated fat limits. Trans fats are completely banned, fryers are banned in elementary schools, and bread must be 100% whole grain.
"A lot of our children don't eat whole wheat breakfast biscuits, and we are required to serve that because of the 100% [requirement]. A lot of my kids don't eat whole wheat hamburger buns and hot dog rolls because that's not what they eat at home," Parker explained of the challenges.
Parker says the nutrition mandates led to a 10-15% drop in sales from the school cafeteria.
We asked kids what they thought about the new lunch offerings, and the reviews were mixed. As you might expect, some kids told us school lunch was "gross" and "disgusting" but other kids said the opposite.
"I like the lunches better than they was before," North Brunswick Sophomore Tajanae Campbell told us. She said she enjoys the fruits and vegetables, but "I think we should bring wings back. Wings should be back."
Parker said wings were one of the more popular school lunch items, but they are not able to offer them as frequently as they used to because they are an expensive item to serve. The new federal requirements are more expensive to abide by, limiting the schools' budget for other popular menu items.
The new requirements have increased purchases of fruits and vegetables by school nutrition departments. Parker says this increased demand with a limited supply drove up prices for fruits and vegetables. So in many cases, the schools are having to spend more for the very items kids are throwing away. The kids regret the waste as well.
"I grew up in a household where you don't throw away food," said North Brunswick Sophomore Madelyn Jackson. "You eat it, or someone else eats it, or you save it for later. And so it's weird to me that I come to school and have to pick up food that I'm not going to eat and then throw away later."
Jackson was required to take an orange when she went through the lunch line. She says it was the only choice left, but she doesn't like oranges, so she threw it away when lunch was over. While we didn't see an overwhelming amount of fruit and vegetables in the trash the day we went to the school cafeteria, there was definitely untouched food in the trash can.
The vegetable options on the menu the day we came for our tour included sweet potato fries, corn and green beans. Parker says those are some of the more popular vegetable offerings with students, which is why we didn't see an excessive amount being thrown away.
But Parker says federal mandates require schools to offer different kinds of fruits and vegetables throughout the week. Some of them, like kale, have not gone over well with the kids and are more likely to be thrown in the trash.
In an effort to limit the waste, Brunswick County Schools packages the fruits and veggies in baggies to make it easier for kids to take them with them for later if they don't want them at lunch. Cafeteria workers also cut the fruit, which they say makes kids more likely to eat it than if the fruit is served whole.
Despite the waste, it appears having the fruits and vegetables on the plate does make the kids more likely to eat them than if they weren't there at all. Several kids mentioned that they liked the fruits and vegetables. We even caught very young children at Town Creek Elementary School eating their broccoli, and looking like they liked it!
"The majority of students do end up eating the fruits and vegetables and that's something that's very important not just for their nutrition but their education as well," observed Patty Ann Holden, a 2nd grade teacher at Town Creek Elementary. "I think putting it on their plate really helps."
Politicians Weigh In
The federal government's increased control over the lunch menu has become an issue on the campaign trail, with Republican Presidential Candidate Ted Cruz promising "When Heidi's first lady, French fries are coming back to the cafeteria."
Former GOP Presidential Candidate and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also said the first lady has "no business" being involved in school meals.
The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee voted in January to ease federal restrictions on school lunch, specifically relaxing requirements for whole grains and delaying additional cuts to sodium levels.
The committee leadership hopes that the full House and Senate will vote on this bill soon. Many of the politicians echo the wishes of local school nutrition directors, who would like to move away from the one-size-fits-all approach to school nutrition across the country.
"Turn it back over to the folks that do this every day, and that know the children that they are serving," Parker said. "We do want them to eat better than we did. But you do need to give us some opportunity and some local flexibility."