We believe the Bethlehem Central School District has become a trendsetter with its recent decision to opt out of new federal school lunch guidelines.
The reasoning was simple: The program is not self-sustaining with kids buying fewer lunches. As is often the case in schools these days, economics forced the final decision, but we hope it will also force a harder look at what’s happening in the lunch line.
We’ve followed with interest the development and implementation of the federal school lunch guidelines. It started in 2010 with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which established certain nutritional standards for foods served in schools.
The rules (more fruits and vegetables, less sugar, more whole grains) seem quite sensible. But as is often the case with one-size-fits-all solutions handed down from on high, for every serving of sense there came a side order of impracticality.
The well-intentioned standards are so strict they separated vegetables into color groups that must be served at different times of the week – nuts to freshness, taste or nutritional content, if it’s not dark red it’s not on the tray Wednesday. And under the guidelines, the maximum number of calories that can be served to students in high school is 850. That is perhaps plenty for some. But for others inhabiting growing (and hopefully, active) bodies, that might not come even close to making the cut.
These factors combine to form a scenario in which students will avail themselves of other nutritional opportunities, especially in a relatively affluent district like BC in which most households can afford to send kids off to school with a packed lunch and/or extra spending money.
It’s easy to see how this program might be destined for failure in many school districts, and sure enough, it’s happening. The Niskayuna Central School District dumped the nutritional guidelines after just half a school year and Voorheesville did so ever sooner, both citing the same reasons as BC did more recently. While those districts dropped the program in all cafeterias, at BC, only the high school is affected.
That’s more important than it may seem, because as BC Chief Business and Financial Officer Judith Kehoe pointed out in our story, kids in high school are going to be largely set in their ways when it comes to making choices about food. That is why it is encouraging to see Bethlehem continuing with the (admittedly imperfect) regulations at the middle school and elementary levels. Students at those ages will hopefully retain a healthy eating mindset when it comes time to make more choices.
Public schools have a difficult tightrope to walk when it comes to feeding students. On one side is the requirement the program breaks even, on the other are students’ appetites for unhealthy foods and weighing over it all is the expectation that a school, to which the care of our children is entrusted, hold itself to a higher standard.
This is why we were glad to see the Healthy Kids Committee responding strongly to the decision to change the lunch like at BC. We hope their call for sensible solutions rings true, and agree that should BC continue to rely heavily on a la carte items for the solvency of its meal program, it must also offer palatable, affordable and healthy options along with any less nutritious offerings.
But we also call on parents to set the building blocks for these choices to be made. Expecting students, especially those who are 16 years old, to be insulated from temptations in this day and age is a pipe dream. What must be done is to equip them with the knowledge and ability to make healthy choices – and that starts at an early age, at home.
No matter what’s on the menu, a healthy lifestyle is a matter of choice.