The Bethlehem Central School District has opted out of the federal lunch program at the high school, but some parents are concerned dropping the guidelines isn’t the healthiest choice.
The Bethlehem Board of Education recently approved eliminating participation in the National School Lunch Program only at the high school after district administrators presented information showing a “steep decline” in the number of lunches purchased. Superintendent Thomas Douglas said the district “worked hard” to implement changes to the lunch program, but for high school students, the program wasn’t working.
“The district has always provided healthy choices … throughout all of our discussions we always maintained that healthy choices will continue to be offered,” Douglas said.
Douglas sent a letter to parents on Wednesday, July 3, in which he assured parents “school meals will continue to be nutritious and well-rounded” and “healthy offerings similar to last year” will continue being offered.
The district projected a $200,000 loss next school year if its lunch program remained unchanged, and there is a federal requirement to run a break-even program. Opting out of the program will remove around $41,300 of funding to the district, but the district estimated expanding its program would generate $125,000 in additional revenue.
“They looked at a whole bunch of options and this seemed to be the best option for creating a menu that kids will appreciate … and maintain a commitment to healthy foods,” district spokeswoman JoEllen Gardner said.
In response to the change, members of the Bethlehem Healthy Kids Committee sent a letter back to Douglas on Tuesday, July 9, expressing opposition.
The group recommended the school board establish “explicit nutritional guidelines” that meet certain standards, such those set by the American Association of Pediatrics and the Institute of Medicine. The committee members also recommended the district establish a nutrition subcommittee for the Coordinated School Health Team to develop an “evidence-based nutrition plan.”
“While we could argue the point about keeping the federal program,” Healthy Kids Committee Co-President Karen Shaw said, “the bigger issue at hand is that, federal program or not, our students are entitled to the offering of school food that complies with current evidence-based nutritional standards without the temptations of foods of low or no nutritional value while they are in the care of our public school system.”
Shaw said “food is a personal choice,” but being exposed to marketing of unhealthy foods at school is not.
Bethlehem Food Services Director Paul Franchini said the district is trying to provide high school students with more options. The high school will offer two à la carte lines and continue to promote a complete meal, so students would be able to only purchase an entrée if they prefer.
“The kids are spread out all over the place in what they are choosing,” Franchini said. “It is just going to be packaged in different ways to give more variety to what students want.”
Franchini said the high school will continue serving healthy food and try to stay within federal regulations, but not being bound to them offers more opportunities for choice.
“Some of the regulations this year with the federal government are just too stringent,” he said.
Judith Kehoe, chief business and financial officer for Bethlehem, said student eating habits and choices stretch beyond the control of the district.
“The children’s eating habits are something that are influenced by many other things than what they are eating at the district’s lunch program,” Kehoe said. “These are high school kids that we are talking about as well, so their habits are largely ingrained by the time they get to the high school.”
Healthy Kids Committee Co-President Cindy Ferrari said the committee was “disheartened by the lack of commitment” to implement the federal program. But Kehoe said the district was fully committed to making the federal standards work and offered a variety of options to meet different students’ tastes.
“We gave it a full year to try and make it fully successful,” she said. “They were feeling hungry at the end of their lunch period.”
Kehoe said the majority of students and parents wanted more to be offered at the lunch program.
“We will have some pizza available, but we try to make sure there is a variety of options with that as well,” she said.
One of the problems with the program was the larger portions of fruits and vegetables required to be offered with every meal was more expensive, officials said. Students were forced to take a certain amount even if they are only going to throw out the food, too.
Douglas said the district has to weigh the concerns and opinions of everyone in the district to reach the best solution.
“We value all of our constituents … to the fact that the district has to represent all constituents and throughout this that is a balancing job,” Douglas said.
Douglas said food services will continue to follow “certain nutritional guidelines” and the district is reviewing ways to make those guidelines easily available to the public.