We were inundated with letters responding to Eric Stoessel’s editorial last month asking school foodservice directors for their opinions on the increasingly public and political debate between the USDA and SNA on the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. He wondered what the people in the trenches really thought about the tougher requirements coming this year.
We are a district of 8,500 students in Washington state. Before the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, we had a statewide sodium requirement; we were offering all-you-care-to-take salad bars at all grade levels; we were serving brown rice, whole grain bread, whole grain pasta, whole grain pizza crust, whole grain breading on all breaded products; and our snack bars served baked chips and whole grain cookies. We were covering all department costs, including $800,000 in staff salaries and benefits, and had money left over to replace equipment, install digital menu boards at all of our secondary schools. We were even able to purchase a 40-foot container of biodegradable trays and cutlery to eliminate most of the use of Styrofoam in our meal program.
We were doing pretty well and were ready for the new meal pattern, or so I thought. Year one we lost 5% of our participation and $150,000 in revenue. Year two, in a year with a 5% enrollment increase, we haven't made up any ground. We haven't lost any more, but we haven't gotten any participation back either. We are on pace to barely break even, or maybe lose money this year. This has never happened in the eight years I've been the director in this district.
The problems we faced were not unique to us. Anyone who has ever been a kid knows that if you are told you have to do something, you are going to dig in your heels and not do it. Such was the story that played out over and over in my high school cafeterias. The kids didn't want to be told to take a fruit or vegetable so they would either take it and throw it away, or leave their lunch and walk away. In spite of a concentrated effort to make sure everyone knew about the changes to the meal pattern, it didn't help. We used our website, menus, posters, back to school nights, schedule pick up days and every other event we could think of to advertise the meal plan changes. I actually had parents call to say that we couldn't make their child take fruit or vegetables.
I thought it at the time, and sent it in during the comment period to USDA, that changes needed to be phased in. We all know that kids need to get used to new things. If directors had been given the option to phase in the changes, over a set period of time, the results would have been much more positive. In spite of everything, we will continue on the same path that we started eight years ago. We will continue to serve kids healthy meals that include a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. We are committed to the health of the kids in our district.
It is sad to see feeding kids become such a politically charged issue. Since the beginning of the National School Lunch Program, we have had nutritional requirements that we had to meet. Somehow, that piece of information has been conveniently left out of all conversations leading up to the HHFKA. You will not meet a group of people more committed to feeding kids healthy meals than the school nutrition professionals at work in our schools every day. The bottom line is that a child who eats a lunch served at school is not getting fat from it. It is helping them learn and grow and become productive members of society.
Karen Brown, SNS
Director of Child Nutrition
Sumner School District
Bonney Lake, WA