Staying The Main Course
HCPS, RCPS To Keep Healthy Meals Plan
HARRISONBURG — In spite of a Republican-led effort to allow school divisions to seek exemptions from costly healthy food initiatives, local school nutrition directors say they intend to move forward with the healthier meal patterns they’ve developed.
A bill seeking the exemptions and sponsored by Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., was introduced in the House of Representatives this month.
Rockingham County and Harrisonburg City public schools have stayed afloat with increasingly strict regulations, and neither of the two divisions’ nutrition directors said they would be seeking exemptions if the House bill — for spending on agriculture and food programs — were to pass.
Andrea Early, executive director of school nutrition for HCPS, said she has implemented many of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s requirements slowly, so she hasn’t seen a significant decline in student participation in the past few years. And even though those strict USDA requirements mean giving food to kids even if they know they are going to throw it away, Early said she doesn’t agree with those seeking to release schools from requiring students to take a fruit or vegetable with every meal.
“I do recognize that there’s potential for increased waste. I realize that,” she said. “But I think that taking that part away is going to roll back good progress, and I just don’t think it’s the right answer.”
The bill would allow school divisions to apply for waivers from regulations if they have had a net loss on food programs for six months. Neither Harrisonburg nor Rockingham County would be eligible.
No local representatives serve on the House Appropriations Committee, which is where the bill was originally introduced. U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, the vice chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, said that while he doesn’t know the specifics of the appropriations bill, he supports more local control over school nutrition guidelines.
“The more input at the local level, the better, in terms of operating school lunch programs,” Goodlatte said. “I think communities, teachers, families know better about what the best way to get kids to eat nutritious food is than bureaucrats in Washington. And sometimes, those regulations are very expensive and still [don’t] result in improved eating habits. So to me, the more decisions can be made here, I think the more effective it’s going to be and the more cost-effective it’s going to be.”
But Gerald Lehman, director of food service for RCPS, agrees with Early.
While there’s no question the county has seen a reduction in participation over the past couple of years, Lehman said, he has managed to break even or close to it, and recognizes that a forced apple or cup of vegetables might be the only fresh produce kids see all day, even if they don’t want to eat it.
One of the ways RCPS has stayed in the black is somewhat counterintuitive, Lehman acknowledged. Because healthy food initiatives have reduced participation, RCPS has made some of that money back selling a la carte items kids can buy in addition to their school lunches — reduced-fat Doritos, for example.
Even though those lower-fat chips meet USDA requirements, they’re still not what one would call a “healthy” addition to a balanced lunch. And kids don’t generally understand what “reduced-fat” means, so they’re likely to eat the less-healthy alternatives at home.
“If we allow kids to buy Doritos in schools,” Lehman said, “are we sending the message that Doritos are healthy?”
After the House bill was introduced last week, the USDA announced it would consider loosening an upcoming requirement for all applicable foods to be whole-grain rich. Lehman said he would support relaxing that policy because it’s gone too far. Half those foods — such as pasta, bread and rice — must be whole-grain rich, and even that has been a challenge, he said.
Those strict USDA regulations intend to pack those cafeteria trays with as many nutrients as possible, but the healthiest food in the world won’t do any good for students who just refuse to eat it.
Two big changes are planned for the next school year that could prove to be particularly costly: Schools will have to offer fruit with every breakfast — and kids will have to take it, regardless of whether they want to eat it — and food must also be whole-grain rich.
That might not sound particularly ominous, but kids used to eating lighter-colored pasta at home are often turned off by the darker, speckled whole-grain pasta they’d see at school. If they take it, they may throw most of it away.
Lehman said the division has responded to that by serving less pasta.
Whole-grain foods are overshadowed by their less-healthy equivalents in the grocery store, so students often aren’t eating them for dinner or when they go out to eat at restaurants.
“That’s what all of us hope is occurring to a greater and greater degree, but we’re not really seeing that yet, we’re not really seeing that catch on,” Lehman said.
Still, he sees value in most of the other regulations.
“I think we do want our adults of tomorrow to adopt some healthy eating patterns while they’re young that would be better than what they are now,” Lehman said.
Early said she’s in favor of keeping the whole-grain requirements where they are. There are few items now served in city schools that the division can’t serve next year, she said.
“We’ve been doing whole-grain bread, whole-grain rolls for years,” she said. “So, it’s just been an issue of tweaking a few things to make sure we’re in compliance.”
Contact Kassondra Cloos at 574-6290 or firstname.lastname@example.org