"You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink."
No one knows the wisdom of this old saying better than someone who prepares lunches for hundreds of school children. And given the pages of new regulations that took effect September 2012 in the National School Lunch Program, school lunch managers everywhere would probably also agree that "You can offer nutritious, healthy foods, but you can't make kids eat them or like them."
In fact, problems with the new lunch regulations have caused the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Board of Education to vote to leave the National School Lunch Program starting in September 2013.
After discussing the issue several times and examining a year's worth of data, in June members of the school board unanimously agreed that BH-BL food service manager Nicky Boehm could likely do a better job of providing lunches in the district's five schools if she were no longer burdened with the regulations that come with participation in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
A letter is being mailed to all BH-BL parents about this and other changes in the lunch program. Parents will have 60 days to share their comments with the district before the change takes effect with the opening of school in September. However, assistant superintendent Chris Abdoo believes most parents will be pleased with the change and pleased to see the return of some favorite food items and some larger portion sizes in September.
"Ms. Boehm and her staff worked hard to implement the new regulations, but there were just too many problems and too many foods that students did not like and would not purchase," Abdoo says. "Students complained of being hungry with these lunches and the district lost money. I'm confident we can do better on our own next year."
Due to lower sales, BH-BL's lunch program ended the 2012-13 school year roughly $100,000 in the red, which is deeply upsetting to Boehm who has taken pride not only in offering tasty, nutritious food to her students but in doing so in ways that allowed her five cafeterias to operate in the black.
Food sales declined at all five schools during 2012-13, but especially at the high school, which is the largest school and ordinarily generates the most sales. "Students felt they weren't getting good value for their money," says Boehm. "The high schoolers especially complained the portion sizes were too small, and many more students brought in lunch from home."
Schools are not required to participate in the NSLP, but most schools do in order to receive financial incentives, including low cost federal commodity foods and partial reimbursement of the cost of food served to students who qualify for free and reduced priced meals.
BH-BL will continue to offer free lunches and reduced price lunches for students whose families meet the federal income guidelines for these. Only nine percent of Burnt Hills students qualified for either free or reduced-price lunches during 2012-13 compared to the state average of 43 percent.
Boehm and Abdoo calculate that they can increase sales enough to cover the cost of providing lunches for these students. Because students often did not like the food offered during the past year, even the number of free and reduced price meals served at BH-BL decreased last year.
Boehm and her staff will continue to offer complete lunches with the five suggested components (a fruit, vegetable, grain, protein, and low fat milk) for a set price. Students will also be able to purchase individual items a la carte if they prefer.
The price for complete lunches will increase by 25¢ in September, a change that would have been needed whether the district stayed in the NSLP or not, Boehm says, since prices have not increased in two years. A complete lunch including milk will now cost $2.50 for elementary students, $3.00 for secondary students (whose portion sizes are larger), and $4.00 for adults.
Boehm calculates that starting in September her staff can continue to offer meals that are as healthy as what was required under the NSLP but that more students will actually purchase and eat.
She expects to create lunches that fall within the recommended calorie guidelines for children (550 - 650 calories for grades K-5; 600 - 700 calories for grades 6-8; and 750- 850 calories for grades 9-12), but she looks forward to no longer being forced to plan each week's menus to fit into a rigid set of regulations regarding specific types and serving sizes of food.
"We plan to offer items that are much more appetizing in size and looks. I want to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables and less of the canned, commodity fruits and vegetables," she says. "I want to return to some of the menus that students love, like different types of salads, wraps and sandwiches, especially at the high school. Taco salad is one of our kids' all-time favorites and it's so healthy, so why not offer it more often?"
"The intent of the federal regulations was great, but the rigidity of the program was a backbreaker," she says, referring to both the daily and weekly requirements.
For instance, in 2012-13 the NSLP required schools to serve students at least one-half cup of each of the five groups of vegetables (dark green, red/orange, dried beans/peas, "starchy," and "other" vegetables) at least once a week. And vegetables must be served alone in a separate cup rather than incorporated into, say, a soup, salad or taco filling, in order to prove that the student was getting at least a half-cup serving. "Our students will eat beans in soup or salsa, but I can't get them to eat plain beans," Boehm notes.
Boehm also ran into trouble with the rigidity of the protein and grain requirements. Elementary student lunches could contain no more than 10 ounces of the "protein" component per week. So if she served the students' favorite three-ounce chicken patty twice in a given week in various forms, she only had four ounces of protein left to stretch over three lunches. A similar problem occurred with chicken nuggets. "The elementary kids hated getting only three nuggets. They wanted five like they used to have, but we had to plan for the rest of the week."
With an allowance of only 10-12 ounces of grain per week for high school students, she could not offer sandwiches every day, and had to serve only half a sandwich once a week, which was particularly upsetting to high school athletes.
Another example of the complexity of the NSLP regulations occurred when a lunch inspector noticed Boehm was serving a high school lunch using 54 gram whole wheat hamburger rolls. The requirement is for at least 56 grams of grains per day, so Boehm had to add a package of crackers to each meal.
Boehm also looks forward to being able to act more like the trained chef she is and less like a food policeman: "I'm excited that we'll be able to make more foods from scratch, too, next year like home-made soups, lasagna, Tex Mex dishes, and southern-style chicken and biscuits, which I couldn't get to fit into the federal regulations."
Other school districts in the Capital Region that have opted
to leave the NSLP include Niskayuna and Voorheesville. Should
conditions change, districts can opt to return to the program at
a later date.