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Illinois School District Quits National School Lunch Program

Students at McLean High School in McLean, Virginia, purchase snacks at a vending machine on school property 15 December 2005. (AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

The new federal “Smart Snacks in School” program is aimed at making sure students are only offered nutritious foods and beverages during the school day. Pictured is a student at McLean High School in McLean, Virginia, in 2005. (AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

A suburban Chicago school district’s decision to opt out of the National School Lunch Program leaves federal dollars and food on the table.

The school board in Township High School District 214 voted yesterday to drop the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Smart Snacks in School” program that will be implemented in schools nationwide starting July 1.

Officials in the district say that the new food requirements offer healthy meals that students won’t eat.

David Schuler, superintendent of Township High School District 214, speaks with Jeremy Hobson about why the district is rejecting the program, and what it plans to do to keep the menu healthy.

Interview Highlights: David Schuler

On why the district decided to opt out of the program

“We just decided that with the regulations required for the new food lunch program, our students were not going to be eating the food, they were going to be throwing the food away. And we’re close enough with our high schools that kids could leave the campus, walk across the street to a fast food restaurant or a convenience store, where they’re gonna be purchasing food that’s much less healthier than we can offer in the district. So we’re gonna be offering very healthy, well-balanced, nutritious meals, but just ones that also taste good.”

On why the federal program doesn’t work for his students

“It really comes down to the amount. You know, like, a hard-boiled egg can no longer be served because it’s too high in fat. Skim milk over 12 ounces can’t be served. The portion sizes are much smaller than in the past. So for high school athletes who are looking to eat and be full, it’s just not working for us.”

On helping students learn about making good choices in their diets

“We would rather provide an educational experience for our students for when they go through the lunch line. So what they will see is every food that they can choose from will have a green, a yellow or a red dot. Green means totally healthy, you can eat as much as you’d like. Yellow means, you know, maybe two or three servings a week. Red, you can have this, but only every now and then. Rather than just leaving campus and going and buying a bag of chips or grabbing a burger at the fast food restaurant, helping educate them from a nutritional standpoint.”

Guest

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW, and a school district outside Chicago is saying no to the federal government's school lunch program because of new requirements that food be healthier. The school board in Township High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, Illinois, voted to drop out of the program yesterday, a program first lady Michelle Obama has been advocating for.

David Schuler is superintendent of the district, and he joins us on the line. And superintendent, why did you decide to opt out of the program?

DAVID SCHULER: You know, we're in a position where we just decided that with the regulations required for the new food lunch program, our students were not going to be eating the food, they were going to be throwing the food away. And we're close enough with our high schools that kids could leave the campus, walk across the street to a fast food restaurant or a convenience store, where they're going be purchasing food that's much less healthier than we can offer in the district.

So we're going to be offering very healthy, well-balanced, nutritious meals, but just ones that also taste good.

HOBSON: Well, let's talk about what these regulations are. This requires things to be whole grain rich. It requires that there be fruit or vegetable or a dairy product or a protein food. So these are things you're saying that students just don't want to eat?

SCHULER: No, it's not necessarily that, Jeremy. It really comes down to the amount. You know, like, a hard-boiled egg can no longer be served because it's too high in fat. Skim milk over 12 ounces can't be served. The portion sizes are much smaller than in the past. So for high school athletes who are looking to eat and be full, it's just not working for us.

HOBSON: So do you think that these regulations went too far, then?

SCHULER: I mean, I think obviously they had wonderful intentions, and we would never fault anyone's intentions, but for high school students, we found that students were throwing away more of the food than they were actually consuming, or they were leaving campus and going to purchase less healthy food.

HOBSON: Now on the flip side of this, of course, we're got the data from the CDC, which shows that more than a third of kids and teenagers are now overweight or obese in this country, that the number of children who are obese has doubled in the last 30 years, it's quadrupled among adolescents. So as you say, the intention was to get people to eat more healthy foods, and maybe it's just growing pains. Maybe they would get used to it, no?

SCHULER: Possibly, but I think what we're finding is we would rather provide an educational experience for our students for when they go through the lunch line. So what they will see is every food that they can choose from will have a green, a yellow or a red dot.

Green means totally healthy, you can eat as much as you'd like. Yellow means, you know, maybe two or three servings a week. Red, you can have this, but only every now and then. Rather than just leaving campus and going and buying a bag of chips or grabbing a burger at the fast food restaurant, helping educate them from a nutritional perspective.

HOBSON: So give me an example of what a lunch could be under your program.

SCHULER: Yeah, so it could be, you know, a Buffalo chicken wrap with a side of sliced apples and baby carrots. It could be an apple, feta and edamame salad, pasta primavera.

HOBSON: Could it be a burger and fries?

SCHULER: It could be a burger and fries, yeah, but not French fries. We don't fry any food. We haven't had fryers in our district for probably 10 years now. Everything is baked.

HOBSON: Now the Chicago Tribune is reporting that without being in the federal program, your district is going to lose $900,000 in federal subsidies. Why would you be willing to give up that much money?

SCHULER: Yeah, well, the only way we would receive the subsidies is if students would actually eat in the cafeteria. Our history has been we received about $900,000. We believe that through a la carte sales and our new offerings that we're actually going to be able to make up that money. We think that we'll make about a 10 percent increase over our current net sales at the end of year one.

HOBSON: And what about students who get free and reduced meal plans?

SCHULER: They will still be able to receive free and reduced meal plans.

HOBSON: Those would not be affected at all, even though federal dollars help provide those meals?

SCHULER: Correct. We're confident that through our a la carte sales, we're going to be able to cover those expenses. We are not going to allow any child of poverty not to have a good, warm, healthy meal.

HOBSON: So what's been the response from parents?

SCHULER: It's been incredibly positive. We ran sample menus of food based on the proposed regulations and then based on our proposal, and it was just overwhelmingly that the students really liked the size and portions of the food.

HOBSON: David Schuler, superintendent of Township High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, Illinois. David, thanks.

SCHULER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Rick

    Federal government needs to get out of the school breakfast/lunch/dinner business.

    • bust_a_gut

      Rick,
      Again you are so simplistic, both in sentiment and expression.

      The article said the system didn’t work for them, so they dropped it. That is something I respect, and I feel the superintendent had some pretty well thought out reasoning for his decision. There are reasons for systems, however, and the program likely works for other school districts – for a variety of reasons.

      • Rick

        Please read the community rules above. Personal attacks are not permitted.

        • bust_a_gut

          OK,
          I’ll ask more nicely, please give some reasoning/context to your statements. Here’s my take:

          If more corporations paid their fair share of taxes then there would be more jobs for people and their kids would likely not not have to rely on government for food.

          • Rick

            Excuse me? If corporations paid higher taxes it would result in more jobs? That makes no sense.

            How about if “families” who can’t afford kids stopped breeding. And pay for food BEFORE you pay for satellite TV, Netflix, iPhone, beer, cigarettes, pot, etc.

          • Whitesauce

            If corporations could pay higher taxes, they would invest more into their company, which could lead to more jobs. Letting execs pocket the company’s wealth, in the form of larger compensation packages, does not create more jobs. If that were true, there would be very low unemployment. Also, your version of poverty is skewed by hatred. Poor people are allowed those things, like it or not.

          • Pleiades

            So, Rick, you are saying you would prefer the federal government pay for birth control like through the ACA than pay for school food programs promoting healthy eating for students?

  • Kurt Oehlberg

    This is a poor and limited sample of the new Health Hunger Free Kids Act guidelines. The purpose of the new guidelines is to ensure that ALL students regardless of income receive a balanced “nutritious” meal. Only 37% of the students in the township mentioned qualify for free and reduced lunches. This is a case where the NSLP was a crutch, that allowed the township to follow the status quo rather than develop the best practices for their student population. The new guidelines are more costly to implement and raise the existing bar for improving the eating habits of children.

    Mr. Schüler, says that hard boiled eggs are not allowed in the NSLP. I would like to see some proof of this statement. Please go to page 26 of this PDF below. It provides an example of a lunch/breakfast that serves hard boiled eggs.

    http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/SP45-2013a.pdf

    Furthermore, the stop light idea mentioned does not guarantee or have been proven to work. A child will take what he/she deem the most satisfying based on previous consumption patterns along with smell and visual appeal.

    Lastly, the idea that the school provided a tasty menu with the suggested new menu items and one following the guidelines of the NSLP is subjective evidence at best. The township clearly benefits from dropping the NSLP, which lead them to be bias against the NSLP. Additionally, the feta apple salad and pasta primavera could both be served under the NSLP guidelines.

    Ugh, why isn’t the class issue part of this conversation. NSLP is not a one size fits all program; school districts vary in a myriad of ways. The NSLP is not meant to be a social feeding program, it is to ensure that every child that cannot afford lunch receives a basic meal.

  • Rob Robinson

    The notion of any part of government acting as the food police makes no sense at all. The fact that we are considering restricing food choices and at the same time refuse to revise gun laws is insane. For the same reason that men should not be making any decisions about women’s birth rights, skinny people should not be part of the descussion about obesity.

  • Monicatoby

    His ideas sound great, to me! It is SO true that it doesn’t matter HOW healthy the food is, if the kids don’t eat it! My mother-in-law was a food extremist. She not only made everything 100% whole wheat, but added things like raw wheat germ and bran, kelp powder, brewer’s yeast and bone meal. If she made choc chip cookies, for example, it was whole wheat, with about a third of the fat and sugar called for, and if there were 3 or 4 chips per cookie, that was plenty. When they were out on the farm and it was all they had to choose from, they ate it. When they left for college, or were otherwise away from home, they ate the absolute worst crap they could get!

    After seeing that, I tried to hit a happy medium between healthy and tasty and my kids have much better diets, now that they are grown!

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