HANCOCK COUNTY — Education officials in Hancock County agree a proposed rollback of school food rules would lead to more flexibility in their menu planning without spoiling nutrition standards.
President Donald Trump’s administration took a step earlier this month toward dismantling school nutrition guidelines that former first lady Michelle Obama championed during her husband Barack Obama’s presidency. Proponents contend the change would help schools, while critics argue it would come at the cost of hurting students.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the changes are necessary to give schools more flexibility and reduce waste while maintaining nutritious and appetizing meals.
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“Schools and school districts continue to tell us that there is still too much food waste and that more common-sense flexibility is needed to provide students nutritious and appetizing meals,” Perdue said, as quoted by the The Associated Press.
Under the proposal, schools would be allowed to cut the amount of certain types of vegetables served at lunch, and legumes offered as a meat alternative also could be counted as part of the vegetable requirement. Potatoes could be served as a vegetable as well.
Amanda Stout, director of food services for Greenfield-Central schools, said she believes there is room for more flexibility in federal school nutrition guidelines. At the same time, she continued, the school corporation is able to offer a wide variety under the current rules and that students respond well to those options.
“Our goal is to make sure that the kids are eating foods that are healthy and are acceptable to them,” Stout said. “And from where our menus are right now… our students are generally happy with everything that we have in place for them.”
Katie Peters, dietitian for Greenfield-Central Schools, said kids typically won’t choose a fruit or vegetable if they only get one choice. She added the school corporation is only required to offer one kind of fruit and one kind of vegetable per meal. She and Stout said the corporation exceeds that by offering three to four different fruit and vegetable choices a day.
“We’re kind of going above and beyond, intentionally kind of incentivizing the kids to say hey, if you pick a vegetable, you get to choose which one, because we’re going to give you an array of choices,” Peters said. “…Financially, do we take a small hit? Sure, but I think it’s worth it in the long run.”
The Trump administration’s proposal would also give schools greater flexibility in offering entrees for a la carte purchases.
Colin Schwartz, deputy director for legislative affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the AP that would “create a huge loophole in school nutrition guidelines, paving the way for children to choose pizza, burgers, french fries, and other foods high in calories, saturated fat or sodium in place of balanced school meals every day.”
The proposal would reduce the amount of red and orange vegetables that would have to be offered every day at lunch as well.
The 2010 Health, Hunger-Free Kids Act set nutrition standards for school meals, requiring schools to offer fruits and vegetables and more whole-grain foods and to limit calories, fat and sodium.
David Pfaff, superintendent of Eastern Hancock schools, said he doesn’t think the proposed changes are as radical as Schwartz and other critics think.
“They will provide some flexibility to school cafeterias but do not seem to roll back all the Obama school lunch rules,” Pfaff told the Daily Reporter in an email. “It looks like we will be provided a little more leeway in what items will satisfy the required daily nutritional requirements, but the quantity of vegetables provided, for example, will not change.”
Over the past 10 years, Pfaff continued, Eastern Hancock has seen about a 15% decrease in student lunch participation coupled with increased food costs.
“We have no hard data other than observation, but it is painfully obvious that food waste has increased dramatically since the inception of the more strenuous requirements,” he added.
Doris Johnson, director of food services for Mt. Vernon schools, told the Daily Reporter in an email that she also feels the proposed changes would give schools more flexibility without compromising nutrition.
“School food service programs will still be held to strict nutrition standards,” Johnson said. “Meals served to students will continue to be healthy, providing students the nutrients they need to thrive in the classroom.”
She added she believes some of the proposed flexibility will help reduce waste as well.
Wes Anderson, director of school and community relations for Southern Hancock schools, agreed.
“As a district, we’re always in favor of decisions that give us more local control,” Anderson said in an email. “Our goal is always to provide healthy and nutritious meals to our students. I don’t foresee these changes affecting our goal at Southern Hancock.”
The proposed rule is the second move by the Trump administration to scale back the school lunch program’s nutrition standards. Under a 2018 rule, the administration reduced the amount of whole grains that had to be served and allowed low-fat chocolate milk. Before the rule change, only fat-free flavored milk was permitted.