‘We don't need directives," says Tony Aquilio. He's principal at Penn-Trafford High School, in a school district east of the city, where they've tired of having Washington tell them what to serve in the cafeteria: The school board there voted April 11 to opt out of the National School Lunch Program. Aquilio explains that instead of feeding students the limited menu approved by the federal government, he wants to give students the skills to make their own healthy eating choices: "We need to trust them to do that."
Trusting students and even school administrators to figure out healthy meals on their own isn't exactly what the National School Lunch Program is all about. The program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, issues mandates and then punishes schools that don't meet the standards the bureaucrats set. And those standards keep getting stricter: In 2010, Washington put new calorie, sodium, sugar, and fat limits in place.
School lunches are just one of the child nutrition programs administered by the USDA. And as the Washington Free Beacon has reported, the department is proposing new rules for the programs, rules to be enforced with fines and other punishments. The USDA says it is "proposing to establish criteria for assessments against State agencies and program operators who jeopardize the integrity of any Child Nutrition Program." In plain English, "assessments" means "fines." The government's proposal also threatens "eliminating cost-reimbursement."
Cost reimbursements have been both a carrot and a stick. When first lady Michelle Obama championed rewriting the old school lunch menus along new and improved nutritional guidelines, the idea was to limit portion size and increase kids' consumption of fruits and vegetables. To encourage school districts to participate in the program, the government increased the amount it would reimburse schools per meal and increased, as well, the number of children eligible for reduced-price and free lunches. The reimbursements were offered as a way schools could offset the cost of the new and more expensive menus. But once those reimbursements are built into their budgets, schools are that much more bound by federal mandates, because they can't risk losing the subsidies.
And so the mandates get even more onerous. In 2014, the USDA enacted "Smart Snacks in Schools" rules that set nutrition guidelines for any foods offered at school—whether part of the lunch program or not. The rules specified breads be at least half whole-grain. Fat could account for no more than 35 percent of calories. And there are limits on calories, along with restrictions on salt and sugars.
The trouble with the mandates isn't that schools have trouble making the meals, but the fact that kids don't like them very much.
That might not have mattered as much if the USDA hadn't been reducing the reimbursements that had made the program attractive to schools in the first place. But add to the losses of reimbursements the losses because kids won't buy the food being offered, and the program looks less and less attractive. Penn-Trafford business manager Brett Lago told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the district has been losing about $20,000 per year because of low student participation in the lunch program. "We are not in this to make a profit," Lago said. "Our goal is to break even as possible." The program is wasteful, he said, requiring students to take fruits and vegetables they don't want.
And it's students who have been behind the effort to get government out of the kitchen: Five-hundred students—40 percent of the Penn-Trafford High School population—signed a petition to opt out of the school lunch program. Federal guidelines "are very counterproductive to what they are trying to achieve," Lago told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Students know when their choices are being limited and they've been voting their displeasure for some time by not buying school lunches. As at Penn-Trafford, there are public schools in California, New York, Kentucky, and Illinois that have chosen to step away from the USDA lunch program.
Opting out isn't without cost: Penn-Trafford stands to lose $100,000 in federal subsidies. The school hopes it will make up the difference if students, tempted by food they actually want to eat, buy lunch more often. The current food service provider says it can keep costs low even as it offers more choices to the high schoolers. "There will still be plenty of healthy options for students," said Robin Duff of Aramark, the district's food service director.
Schools with greater numbers of low-income and poor students are no happier with the menus that have been forced on them and might like to follow Penn-Trafford's lead. But they don't have the luxury of giving up the subsidies.
For Principal Aquilio it comes back to education and trust. Students at Penn-Trafford "are going to be making choices at other meals, dinner and on the weekends, and we want them to make good decisions all the time." He has a word of encouragement for those thinking of opting out of the federal school lunch program. "Other schools can do the same thing," he says, and "trust their students to make good choices."
Abby W. Schachter is author of No Child Left Alone: Getting the Government Out of Parenting, to be published by Encounter Books in August.